The representation of fashion in ‘A Beatnik Community in St Agnes’ (1969)

During the wintery months of 1969, something unusual happened in the Cornish seaside village of St. Agnes. That is, a group of eccentric, unemployed, and, crucially, strangely dressed ‘beatniks’ arrived and began living in the off-season holiday cottages. This occurrence was notable enough to warrant coverage by local television station Westward Television. In this twelve-minute piece of black and white archival footage, Del Cooper interviews both the ‘suspicious’ local residents and the ‘unconventional’ beatniks, capturing a unique moment of fashion microhistory.

Before delving into analysis, it is important to first set this film in a temporal and geographic context. Alternative style was not necessarily new: indeed, by 1969, a variety of subcultural styles and countercultural thought existed in the UK. Since the mid-1950s, Jazz Fiends, Beatniks and West End Boys, stylistically spearheaded by West Indian immigrants, challenged the constrictive post-war aesthetic of adulthood. In the 1960s, Mods and Skinheads similarly used their dress to be socially disruptive. And while Beatniks are not as readily associated with 1960s subculture as Mods, in June 1965, beat poet Allen Ginsberg nevertheless drew a crowd of 7,000 to his four-hour-long poetry reading.Yet, while counterculture and alternative style was a real possibility in this era, visible street style was often limited to London and other cultural hubs. So, when a group of fashionably long-haired Beatniks arrived in a village at the extremity of southwestern England, they signified something new, and disrupted the social ‘norm’.

Analysing this film through the lens of dress and fashion, therefore, is extremely valuable. It is the Beatniks’ dress that is the main disturbance to St. Agnes. Their unusual and sometimes flamboyant style is a stark juxtaposition against the conservative villagers and the local television reporter. This non-fiction film is illustrative of an important representation of fashion on a micro-level, separate to the world of high fashion and London.

If, as fashion scholar Carlo Marco Belfanti argues, fashion is defined by ‘an increasing passion for change and an insatiable search for novelty’, there is nothing more novel than the juxtaposition of a trendy subcultural dress with an underpopulated tourist destination in winter. Accordingly, the film opens with a static shot of Del Cooper standing against a backdrop of usual activity in St. Agnes. He seems to embody the orthodox, respectable and masculine. His grey hair is cut short and only slightly windswept, and he is dressed conservatively in a monochrome polo-neck jumper and clean-cut wool jacket. Behind him, a woman in a headscarf exits Webb’s Store, and a Jacob’s van pulls up across the road to unload a delivery of cream crackers. This scene of total normalcy, however, is soon unsettled by subversive dress. As the camera pans right, the viewer’s eye is drawn to a group of women and men making their way through the village. They are wearing loose-fitting, layered garments, accessorised with patterned scarves and a random assortment of hats; all of them with genderbending long hair. At this moment, Cooper, addressing the camera, answers the unspoken question: ‘Well, of course, it all depends on what you mean by Beatniks. If you mean young people with long hair and rather unconventional clothes, then the Beatniks are here, in St. Agnes, right now.’ A group who have fashioned themselves so conspicuously, their desire for novelty and change is palpable.

It is important to note Del Cooper’s definition of ‘Beatnik’. There are only two elements of this definition: their novel clothing and their long hair. While their actual behaviour is mentioned in the film – sharing money and belongings, strict vegetarianism, and inclination to burn joss-sticks in the local pubs – it is their dress that makes them Beatniks, including their decision to grow their hair long, a body modification that clearly communicates to other human beings that they are unconventional.

Figure 1: Del Cooper addresses the camera as the Beatniks walk into shot

Figure 2: Overcoats, scarves, dark colours and an air of casualness defines these young people

As the camera follows the Beatniks through the village, a man and a woman lead the group, five or six paces ahead. The man wears dark, flared jeans, pointed heeled boots, and a sparsely buttoned-up patterned shirt over a ruffled scarf. A cropped fur coat shrouds this outfit, that he wears undone with his hands resting casually in the pockets. His hair is slightly longer than shoulder length, accessorised by an askew cowboy-style hat. The woman is casually dressed in all black: a loose-fitting dress that reaches her ankles and leather boots. Over this, she wears an oversized, lightweight jacket and a carelessly knotted scarf around her neck. Her long hair flows behind her as she walks.

Figure 3: The flamboyantly dressed leaders

Following behind them are six more long-haired members of the group. Another woman in all black pushes a pram while four men walk alongside her, all in flared trousers and casual shoes. Their winter coats are a trench coat with the belt hanging loose at the back, a hooded duffle, and two double-breasted peacoats, respectively. One man wears a beret, while another wears a Russian Cossack-style fur hat, and they have on a hodgepodge of scarves. Another woman brings up the rear, dressed in a more masculine style, with loose-fitting trousers, a shirt, and a chunky waistcoat. She does not wear her coat but drags it along in her left hand, with a lit cigarette in her right.

What about these people’s dress draws them together? They are undoubtedly a collective, with loose and layered flares, long hair, and patterned scarves. Crucially, these clothes must be thrown on their bodies carelessly, unbuttoned, with pockets to rest the hands. Casualness defines this style tribe. Yet their clothes incorporate a range of cuts, styles, and materials, from paisley cotton scarves to striped woollen scarves, from fur coats to duffel coats – a nod to the growing interest in second-hand clothing in the late 1960s. This exemplifies the paradox at the heart of fashion. As Sheila Cliffe has put it, ‘humans have a need to be both a member of a group, which provides security and also distinguish themselves from the group and assert their individuality’. This is highlighted through the community’s differences in dress and fashioning themselves – they accessorise with individual styles of hat, scarf, and sometimes coat.

This casual, loose, and layered style would not be nearly as striking if it were not juxtaposed with the relatively plain and certainly traditional style exhibited by the long-term residents of St. Agnes. Yet, as the film begins to interview the locals, it is clear that the exhibition of dress is of far less importance to the filmmaker. While the camera angles ensured to include plenty of full-body shots of the unusual Beatnik outfits, the shots of the interviewees are only static close-ups. And to a degree, this is understandable: if fashion is novel, in constant change, and both individual and group-based, the St. Agnes citizens are not particularly fashionable.

Figure 4: A fur-hatted local

Six different locals are interviewed, and either express distaste or indifference to the unorthodox new arrivals. In a few minutes, viewers meet a range of characters: a woman, without make-up, her white hair tucked into a dark fur pillbox hat, and a paisley scarf knotted around her neck; a middle-aged man in a wool coat and trilby hat; a young woman, bare-faced with a messy bob haircut; a woman with dark hair tied up in a loose bun, both make-up and accessory free; an old lady in a fur bonnet; a local councillor with neat curls and cats-eye spectacles; and a man in a stiff-collared coat, white shirt and tie. Dress, at its most fundamental, can signify ambivalences inherent in humans. Here, the functional and stylish – but not particularly trendy – fur hats help to signify a woman’s age. Likewise, the local councillor’s well-ordered spectacles and hair signify her – relatively – public-facing occupation. The man in a coat, shirt and tie suggests professionality. Most fundamentally, the men have short hair while the women have long. Therefore, while not everyone self-fashions to be novel, trendy, or individual, the interviews with the Cornish people signify that on some level, everyone self-fashions to reveal a subconscious element of themselves.

Figure 5: Traditionally masculine

Figure 6: A practical fur bonnet for winter

Figure 7: A stern pair of cats-eye spectacles

As the film moves to interview the Beatniks, however, deeper elements of the inner self are visually expressed. As Daniel Miller argues, dress can often be used ‘as an appropriate exploration of who one really is’.[1] The television reporter, Cooper, seems quite aware of this innate connection. While interviewing Toni, a single mother who wears a string of sparse beads wrapped around her neck twice, reminiscent of hippie love-beads, and a black button-down blouse with delicate embroidery and slightly puffed sleeves, he asks, ‘The people of St. Agnes are very suspicious of you because you’re very unconventional in your dress. Are you also unconventional in your morals?’.

Figure 8: Toni wears artistic beads and slightly puffed sleeves

Additionally, the non-fiction news segment shows snippets of the travelling artists undertaking their crafts and passions. We see people engraving slates, painting, forging jewellery, and playing music. And, in line with Miller’s theory, each person’s dress seems to reflect their own inner talent. The jewellery makers wear thick metal rings on nearly every finger, and the performer dresses the most flamboyantly, in a beret, with long hair and white-rimmed sunglasses – impractically worn indoors. Not only do these accessories help these artists with their self-expression, but they also embody a further definition of fashion. That is, prioritising form over function. It is certainly not practical to wear so many rings, nor are sunglasses fulfilling a practical function when worn indoors. These Beatniks are using dress and accessories purely to portray themselves how they desire.

Figure 9: Layered handmade silver rings adorn this jewellery maker’s hands

Figure 10: Sunglasses indoors

And as the short film comes to a close, an atmospheric shot pans out of shabbily, artistically dressed Beatniks, listening to a poem being read aloud against the crashing waves of Cornwall. Miller’s concluding argument seems apt: a study of clothing should evoke feelings, both tactile and emotional. Perhaps, then, in the bitter winter air, their layered outfits, hats and scarves are keeping them warm in the wintery air. Or perhaps a breeze blows right through the loose-fitting dresses. Perhaps their chunky, hand-knitted woollen jumpers are itchy. Perhaps they enjoy feeling the sea breeze in their long hair.

The film ends, panning in on the waves after Del Cooper makes his closing statement:

What bothers the 4,000 odd residents of this charming, attractive and rather conventional seaside village is that the community with unconventional clothes and rather unorthodox ways will, as they put it, give the village a bad name and drive away the holiday visitors.  They want them to go. But whether you call them free-thinking artists, Beatniks, or the vanguard of a new movement to make England great again, they’re here to stay. And St. Agnes will never ever be quite the same again.

Here, the importance of fashion and dress is notable: this strangely dressed yet fashionable community has altered the microhistory of St. Agnes.

Figures 11 and 12: The closing scene of the film, the Beatniks set against the backdrop of the cold, wintery ocean

By Kathryn Reed

Bibliography

A Beatnik Community in St Agnes. Presented by Del Cooper. BFI (South West Film & Television Archive), 1969. https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-a-beatnik-community-in-st-agnes-1969-online

Arnold, Rebecca, Fashion: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2009)

Belfanti, Carlo Marco, ‘Was Fashion a European Invention?’ in Journal of Global History 3 (2008)

Cliffe, Sheila, ‘Think Fashion or Tradition?’, The Social Life of Kimono: Japanese Fashion Past and Present. (London, 2018)

Davis, Fred, Fashion, Culture and Identity (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995)

Donnelly, Mark, ‘Wholly Communion: Truths, Histories, and the Albert Hall Poetry Reading’, Journal of Cinema and Media 52 1 (2011), pp. 128-140

Eicher, Joanne B., and Roach-Higgins, Mary Ellen, ‘Definition and Classification of Dress,’ in Ruth Barnes and Joanne B. Eicher, Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning in Cultural Contexts (Oxford, 1993)

Miller, Daniel, ‘Why Clothing Is Not Superficial,’ in Stuff (Cambridge: Polity, 2010)

Tulloch, Carol, ‘Rebel Without a Pause: Black Street Style & Black Designers’ in Juliet Ash and Elizabeth Wilson (eds.) Chic Thrills:  A Fashion Reader (Berkeley, 1993)

Welters, Linda, ‘The Beat Generation Subcultural Style’, in Linda Welters and Patricia A. Cunningham (eds.) Twentieth Century American Fashion (London, 2005)

How The Jonas Brothers Paid Homage to The Favourite in their Sucker Music Video

In the middle of research for my dissertation, I procrastinated by watching the Jonas Brother’s music video for their single ‘Sucker’. I can’t say I’m a close follower of the band but I was drawn in by their reunion and I feel that they are genuinely hilarious, indicated by this Paper cover.

Pls be my friends.

I’ve since become hooked on the song, but the most significant part of the video for me was the location: the stately home, Hatfield House. This is because a key part of my dissertation was based on the locations used in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, especially Hatfield, which was used for Queen Anne’s palace.
For the most part the music video matches the theme of the song, with the brothers literally falling at their wives’ feet. There was also a chaotic atmosphere, which I felt resembled a mad hatter’s tea party through the exuberant outfits and actual tea parties. In this sense, the grandeur of Hatfield suits the excess in the video; lounging in a bubble bath in a diamond hairnet should be an everyday ritual.

Sofie Turner in the ‘Sucker’ music video.

However, having obsessively looked at Hatfield onscreen and in person, there were some definite nods to The Favourite. I’ve narrowed it down to these three moments:
1. Rabbits

Sophie Turner and Danielle Jonas in ‘Sucker’.

Olivia Colman and Emma Stone as Queen Anne and Abigail Masham in The Favourite.

In The Favourite, Queen Anne has seventeen pet rabbits, which represent the real monarch’s number of miscarriages. They are a key visual motif throughout the film, communicating the Queen’s tragedy and eccentricity. In Sucker, Sophie Turner and Danielle Jonas lounge on deckchairs in the distinctive Marble Hall (think of the scene in the film with the dance mash-up of voguing and waltzing), while a herd of rabbits surround them.

2. The Long Gallery 

Priyanka Chopra in ‘Sucker’.

Emma Stone in The Favourite, with a wide angle lens used for this shot.

This expansive corridor is used many times throughout the film to convey the idea of isolated spaces, with the gallery often manipulated by the use of fisheye lenses to enhance the length and add a period look to the film. In the music video, Priyanka Chopra strides down the corridor, and there is the same gilded ceiling and wooden panelling which makes it so distinctive in The Favourite.

3. The Library 

Image 7: The gang’s all here.

Rachel Weisz and Mark Gatiss as Sarah and John, the Duchess and Duke of Marlborough.

The library is used as Sarah’s bedroom in the film, distinctive for its floor to ceiling bookshelves and ladders lining the walls (think of Sarah throwing books at Abigail, if the room isn’t coming to mind). In the final moments of the music video, the band and their wives pose in front of the shelves as their portraits are painted.
Hatfield House, with its distinctive Jacobean architecture, is a popular film location, and this could be the reason why the Jo Bros chose it for their music video. However, assuming those moments are references to The Favourite makes me enjoy the video and the film so much more, so I can only thank the band for some mid-dissertation distraction.
Watch ‘Sucker’ here.

Dissertation Discussion: Marielle

Screenshot from Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989)

What is the working title of your dissertation?

I haven’t decided on a snappy title yet, but right now it could be called ‘Bodies and Borders in Jean Paul Gaultier’s Carnival Space’.

What led you to choose this subject?

I’ve been interested in looking at Peter Greenaway’s 1989 film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, for which Gaultier designed the costumes. During an early tutorial, Rebecca suggested that I consider it in terms of Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque, which has proven to be a perfect lens through which to view Gaultier’s work, and really captures its spirit. I’m now treating the film as a culmination of his work until that point, so I can look closely at the early years of his career, just before his fame really soared to another level when he did Madonna’s costumes for the 1990 Blond Ambition tour.

Favourite book/article you’ve read for your dissertation so far and why?

Initially, I loved Nita Rollins’ ‘Old Masters, Fashion Slaves’ essay because I love how she writes about the baroque sensibilities of Greenaway’s film and how Gaultier’s costumes operate within that. This is part of what sparked my excitement for the film. Since diving into Gaultier, I’ve really loved Colin McDowell’s book called Jean Paul Gaultier. It describes his work really nicely, but also integrates quotes from the designer which I’ve found to be amazing insights into his ethos and thought process.

Favourite image/object in your dissertation and why?

Greenaway’s film has been an amazing visual resource to spend time on. The colors are super saturated and it has this really dark, vile underbelly contrasted with the over-the-top interiors and costumes. I like that it can be so beautiful and appealing, and so grotesque at the same time. That feeling of discomfort is what appealed to me in the first place, and has been very useful for setting up discussions about Gaultier and Bakhtin. Plus, Helen Mirren stars in it and looks fabulous in all of her costumes.

Favourite place to work?

Senate House Library! I like to find a corner near a window in a section of a totally unrelated discipline to minimize any kind of distraction.

Dissertation Discussion: Ellen

What is the working title of your dissertation?

Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite: The Significance of Anachronism in Period Dress – felt cute but might delete later.

What led you to choose this subject?

I’ve always been really interested in costume in film. I was originally going to do a comparison between Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) and The Favourite (2018), but realised that would be far too much and actually I found that The Favourite was … my favourite (bad pun, I know). Also, I love that this film is so different to conventional period dramas, and it interested me that anachronism is usually seen as a bad thing or a mistake, whereas here it is purposefully done. I also love Yorgos Lanthimos, and that this film could have followed the path of many a period film, but it is completely altered by his involvement.

Favourite book/article you’ve read for your dissertation so far and why?

I’ve read a lot of great texts while researching, but I would have to say it’s been the films I’ve watched that have been my favourites. I think the most significant one is The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), as I’m focusing a lot on the monochrome colour palette used, and this film is such a clear influence. It’s also absolutely baffling, which I enjoy.

Favourite image/object in your dissertation and why?

It’s got to be Hatfield House. I don’t know if that counts as an object, but it’s the main location for the film, and it’s the basis of one of my chapters. I visited the other week and it’s a Jacobean house with dark wood interiors (makes for a creaky floor) and really rich tapestries, so being there was literally like stepping into a different world. It’s also such a key aspect of the film, and I think the house plays such an important role in the genre of period drama in general, so it was really important for me to go and visit it. I also love its black and white marble floor, and the fact that the Jonas Brothers’ latest video was filmed there.

Favourite place to work?

Probably the British Library as other people working shames me into working, but at the same time I like working from home as I find playing music sometimes helps if I’m in a writing rut.

Dissertation Discussion: Lacey

Figure 1. Dissertation moodboard: 1. Chema Madoz, Untitled 2. Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride 3. John Everett Millais, Ophelia 4. Miss Havisham (Gillian Anderson) in Great Expectations mini-series 5. John William Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus 6. Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee portrait 7. Edward Gorey’s ‘peachable
widow with consolate eyes’ 8. Charles Allan Gilbert, All is Vanity 9. Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dalí’s skeleton dress 10. Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia 11. James Whistler, Whistler, Symphony in White, No. III 12. Caravaggio, Narcissus 13. Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides

What is the working title of your dissertation?

‘Buried Brides’ (+ some subtitular arrangement of ‘dysfunction, surface, bodies, femininity, et cetera, et cetera’)

What led you to choose this subject?

I don’t want to say a lot yet, since I think sharing too much about projects before they’re fully actualised jinxes them. But essentially, I developed this idea of the white dress doubling as wedding dress-Baptism/ Communion gown and burial shroud-ghost sheet in my first formal essay of the year. I really love doing alchemy – taking one thing and transforming it through theory and juxtaposition. Bride becomes corpse, black becomes white, surface becomes depth and back again.

Favourite book/article you’ve read for your dissertation so far and why?

Caroline Evans’ Fashion at the Edge has been my constant this year, and I finally read Ulrich Lehmann’s Tigersprung.

Kirsten Dunst in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2011)

Favourite image/object in your dissertation and why?

This still of Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia is everything I’m talking about. The film opens with a kind of avant-garde, apocalyptic montage, and at one point, Dunst’s character Justine runs in slow motion in her wedding gown as tree branches and roots wrap around her limbs and claw at her. It’s just the perfect visual metaphor: the fashionable, fertile woman in white struggling against time and nature. Melancholia isn’t one of my case studies, but I need to find a way to work this image in anyway. I’ve been thinking of pulling a Lehmann and including thematically insightful pictures alongside my direct illustrations, just to get this in.

Favourite place to work?

I’ve been quite boring this year. In the past I’ve habitually claimed tables at the Hungarian Pastry Shop in New York and the Finnish Institute in Paris, but as of now I’ve exclusively written my dissertation at my desk at Duchy House. I will be better.

“Hell is other people” – or is it Us?

Since the UK release of Jordan Peele’s Us (2019) in late March, I have seen the film a total of three times: 1) in Reading (where I live) with my partner; 2) in Exeter with my family; 3) alone in London. I am a firm believer that the people with whom you see a film and where you see it are vital components to your cinematic experience. The first viewing left me stunned; in the second, I was obsessively working through a plethora of Reddit theories I had poured over and memorised between screenings; and in the last, I was just elated to be in the presence of my new obsession again, mesmerised. 

We have Australian costume designer Kym Barrett (@kymbarrett.design)—Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo + Juliet (1996), The Matrix (1999) and the upcoming Charlie’s Angels (2019) reboot—to thank for one of the many visual layers in this film. The costumery in this film acts as a textural representation of the misfortune that is to imminently befall its core characters (and their mirror-selves). 

*This is not a spoiler. I will however be discussing content that some may view as ‘spoilerific.’ Do not read if concerned (you have been warned!)  

The Wilsons and their Tethered-selves from Jordan Peele’s Us. Collage of two images made by the author.

Us offers its viewer too much: Peele curates too great of a visual feast for us to devour. In this limited amount of space I couldn’t possibly attempt to tackle each in their full manifestations, but I have given a couple of my favourites a go!

The importance of a well-placed tee 

There is a multitude of strategically placed t-shirts throughout Us’s duration, so let’s begin with the most prominent and well-discussed: the Michael Jackson Thriller t-shirt. The film’s unsettling 1986 prologue places our protagonist, a younger Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), at Santa Cruz’s boardwalk. Her father wins a prize at one of the fairground stands, and Adelaide selects a t-shirt emblazoned with the album artwork for Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1984), much to her mother’s despair. The spectral figure of Michael Jackson looms over this clothing item and Us’s 1980s tone at large. 

Young Adelaide (Madison Curry) on Santa Cruz beach wearing Michael Jackson Thriller-themed tee. Collage and additions to image made by the author.

In an interview with @mashable, Peele confessed that he harbours a longstanding fascination with the peculiarly singular place Jackson occupies in pop-culture: ‘Michael Jackson is probably the patron saint of duality… The movie starts in the 80s—the duality with which I experienced [Jackson] in that time was both as the guy that presented this outward positivity, but also the ‘Thriller’ video which scared me to death … [In the wake of Leaving Neverland (2019)] The irony and relevance is not lost on me now that the discussion has evolved to one of true horror.’ The Thriller music video is a filmic pop-culture moment stamped in our collective consciousness, so we all know its main premise is Jackson’s transformation into a zombie. His personhood is metamorphosed and split in two, man and monster. 

This is not the only late-twentieth century mythic beast addressed in Us’s tee-game. Adelaide and Gabe’s (Winston Duke) youngest child Jason (Evan Alex) wears a Jaws (1975) t-shirt during their ‘present day’ return to Santa Cruz beach. Again, those familiar with Spielberg’s horror-at-sea B-movie classic will know that Jaws centres around the gruesome attacks of a gargantuan man-eating great white shark. Could this tee-nod be a symbol of incoming danger? An ominous creature that stalks a subterranean realm, lying in wait and ready to attack the evolutionarily ‘superior’ above-ground species…

Jason (Evan Alex) on Santa Cruz beach wearing Jaws-themed tee. Collage and additions to image made by the author.

Fun honourable tee mentions: 

  • Jason’s tuxedo-style pyjama top 
  • Josh Tyler’s (Tim Heidecker) black ‘FRAGILE’ tee (the slogan strategically placed above a broken wine glass) 
  • Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) wears two rabbit-themed tees: her baby-blue bunny t-shirt worn in the film’s early scenes and a green, short-sleeved hooded sweatshirt that reads ‘THỎ’ (rabbit in Vietnamese) 
  • Gabe’s Howard University sweatshirt (an acute cultural symbol)


THE jumpsuits 

The most instantly recognisable dress symbol in Jordan Peele’s Us is THE iconic red jumpsuits that Red (also played by Nyong’o) and her Tethered doppelgänger family don. The Wilsons’ mirror-image family unit are not the only Tethered outfitted in this (on-trend) boilersuit attire—it is the uniform that binds the Tethered army together as a unified whole. 

Image and caption reposted from Kym Barrett’s Instagram feed (@kymbarrett.design)

Barrett discusses the jumpsuits as a formal sign of rebellion—not too dissimilar looking from the all-red figures in the Hands Across America (1986) campaign imagery—that Adelaide’s Tethered-self Red utilises to outwardly convey her pain: ‘She completely enshrouds her being with this red. It’s a symbol of aggression, a screaming mission. You cannot miss it.’ Barrett discussed with The Atlantic’s Tanisha C. Ford how she and her team worked hard to produce a shade of red that would feel unsettling to look at: ‘It’s half the colour of wet blood; it’s half the colour of dried blood. It’s like an old wound.’

Overalls such as these are a recognisable dress trope that signify a labour-defined workforce: they are functional and allow for a body of workers (detainees, recruits, allies, etc.) to be established in an act of formalised aesthetic unification.  

Notable jumpsuit accoutrements: 

  • The single, brown leather palm gloves: Barrett states that this costuming element was incorporated from a practical standpoint. Barrett and her team learned early in the design process that it is incredibly easy to cut yourself when handling large shears (the Tethered’s weapon of choice). The gloves – another nod to the King of Pop – are protective gear to prevent the ‘slashing’ of hands. 
  • The scissors: technically weaponry, more arsenal than accessory, the scissors serve as another symbol of duality – two singular blades, forged as one, that serve to cut and splice. Scissors are a tool designed to sever, to split a tether.  

Us artwork by illustrator Vincent Blake. Click through image to visit Vincent Blake’s Instagram feed (@dre.blake).

As Ford concludes in her article on Barrett’s costuming, the garments of Jordan Peele’s Us speak for themselves. They ‘supplement and enrich the story rather than distract from it’ and deserve individual consideration. The costumes are contextually rich visual markers that ground Peele’s puzzle-like narrative. On repeat viewings – we are collectively coming to understand Peele’s work is designed to be enjoyed through repetition – the story unfolds a little more, and the costumes act as clues to a much larger picture. 

Oh, and please go see this film, immediately! 

Resources

Jean-Paul Sartre cited in Mark Kermode’s review of Us. Kermode, Mark. ‘Us review’. The Guardian (UK). March 24, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/mar/24/us-review-jordan-peele-lupita-nyongo 

Thompson, Rachel. ‘Jordan Peele explains the significance of the Michael Jackson imagery in ‘Us’’. Mashable UK. March 19, 2019. https://mashable.com/article/jordan-peele-michael-jackson-us-movie/?europe=true 

Ford, Tanisha C. ‘To Understand Us, Pay Attention to the Outfits’. The Atlantic. March 27, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/03/us-meaning-costumes-kym-barrett-interview-red-jumpsuit/585793/ 

Theda Bara: Hollywood’s Original Vamp and Femme-Fatale

We often associate film stars with their onscreen personas, which are inextricably linked to the costumes they wear while portraying their most iconic characters. Audrey Hepburn will forever be linked to Hubert de Givenchy’s black evening gown in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, just as Judy Garland’s blue gingham pinafore in The Wizard of Oz became a part of her lasting image. Identification between star and character can lead to typecasting and an audience expectation that a star will appear as a certain type of character. For example, Joan Crawford was the rags-to-riches girl. Crawford’s characters were often working-class girls who, through luck and hard work, were able to climb to the social ladder to their happy ending. One of Hollywood’s earliest manipulations of star into character, was Theda Bara.

 

Theda Bara, often cited as Hollywood’s first sex symbol, was one of the silent-film era’s most famous stars, second only to Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. Her career last from only 1914-1919, perhaps the reason why her name is not as well-remembered today as some of her contemporaries. After her first film A Fool There was (1914) her image as the vampire, in this case a woman who destroys men using her sexuality, was cemented. Fox Studios was so committed to this image that they fabricated a backstory for Theda, in which she was an Arabian princess raised in Egypt, trained in Paris, saved by director Frank Powell from the horrors of war in Europe, and brought to America. This outrageous story concocted to support her onscreen image linked Bara to her characters in the eyes of the audience.

Bara’s most famous film, Cleopatra (1917), created a Queen of Nile that mixed popular styles of the day, Egyptian motifs, and burlesque costumes to display a Cleopatra who would be both irresistible to the public, and maintain Bara’s public persona. Her costumes reflected her mysterious image. Her costumes were extremely revealing, and accentuated her voluptuous curves. Theda Bara biographer notes that “The Cleopatra costume created quite a stir because it cost $1,000 a yard and Theda seemed to be wearing only ten cents’ worth…the Plain Dealer declared that ‘Of all the Vampires of Screen There’s None So Bare as Theda’”. While Bara strove for historical accuracy in her portrayal of Cleopatra, the revealing costumes did more to enhance her existing image than transport the viewer back to ancient Egypt. Fox carefully controlled this sexy, mysterious persona, even going so far as to contractually insure that she did not appear in public without a veil. While studios would regularly control a star’s story and persona in the Golden Age of the Hollywood Studio System, Bara presents one of the earliest examples of this deception. Through her costumes and characters Bara projected the image of the Vamp and the femme-fatale, and helped to define their look in Hollywood.

By Olivia

Sources:

Landis, Deborah Nadoolman, Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design, (New York: Collins, 2007)

Landis, Deborah Nadoolman, Hollywood Costume, (London: Victoria and Albert, 2012)

 

 

1965’s Doctor Zhivago’s Impact on Fashion

 

In December 1965 David Lean’s epic adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago was released. Doctor Zhivago is the story of Yuri Zhivago, a physician in Russia, and the personal and political upheaval he experiences during the Russian Revolution. Phyllis Dalton’s lush costumes not only won her an academy award, but also spurred a host of new fashion trends. The looks of Julie Christie, who played Zhivago’s mistress Lara, and Geraldine Chaplin, who played Zhivago’s wife Tonya, in particular inspired fashion trends of the time.

Violette Leduc’s article detailing her visit to the set of Doctor Zhivago was released in the September 1965 issue of Vogue. The article was complete with a full spread of photographs of the set and stars of the film. Geraldine Chaplin’s photograph, in full Tonya Zhivago costume, is particularly striking. Chaplin stands on a street set up to look like revolution-era Moscow. She is decked out with a huge, round fur hat, fur stole, and an enormous fur muff. Her face his hidden between the hat and stole, and thus only her eyes and nose peer seductively out at the viewer. She is standing between two imposing portraits of Lenin, Marx and Trotsky, thus setting the scene for the contrast between the lush costumes and world of the early film, and the revolution and hardship that comes later on. This article came out two months before the film was released, likely as part of the intense media blitz on the part of MGM to promote it, and thus generated early excitement and awe at the costumes.

Following the release of the film the ‘Zhivago look’ took full effect. Marc Bohan for Christian Dior drew inspiration for his autumn 1966 line from the film. He used soldier’s caps, long military greatcoats, boots, and fur trim, which all recalled Dalton’s looks for the women of Doctor Zhivago. The fur trimmed ‘Zhivago collar’ and fur hats, in particular became popular following the release of the film, and remain so today. If you search ‘Zhivago style’ on google there are entire sections of Etsy dedicated to the fur-trimmed coats and fur hats that were made popular by the film. Advertisements found as late as 1987 make allusions to Doctor Zhivago when trying to sell fur. The look of fur, silk braiding, military coats, and boots of Phyllis Dalton’s costumes remain a key reference point for top designers. It was not just the women of Doctor Zhivago that inspired trends, but the men as well. Omar Sharif, as Yuri Zhivago, sported a large, well-groomed moustache that spurred a renewed interest in facial hair. The impact of Doctor Zhivago’s costumes has extended beyond the year, or even decade, of its release and into the cultural lexicon.

By Olivia Chuba

Dissertation Discussion: Yona

The finale of ‘Billy Rose’s Aquacade’, 1939. Romano Archives.

What is your title?

Billy Rose’s Aquacade & The Search for American Identity

The ‘Aquagals’ dressed as the Statue of Liberty, 1939. Romano Archives.

What prompted you to choose this topic?

For my dissertation, I am looking at American identity in the costumes of ‘Billy Rose’s Aquacade’, which performed during the 1939 and 1940 New York World’s Fair. Not being aware of the Aquacade’s existence until recently, I came across this topic by chance. During the past year, I have spent considerable time researching American fashion and identity and knew I wanted to continue exploring the subject. When looking for an American film clip archive, I came across the Prelinger Archive, which was founded by Rick Prelinger in 1982 in New York City and consists of around 60,000 ephemeral films. The archive contained amazing amateur films of the New York World’s Fair, which also showed the Aquacade. The Aquacade was the most extraordinary show that I had come across for a long time. Its vast array of different acts included synchronised swimming, diving, dance, skating, fashion, clowns, and performances by important athletes of the time, including Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmuller. Due to its extravagant declarations of Americanness, the Aquacade provides invaluable insight into American identity around the start of World War II.

A birds-eye view of the Aquacade, 1 September 1939. Vogue Archive.

Most interesting research find so far?

One of the most exciting parts of my research has been analysing the use of the American flag and American symbols as an expression of American identity in the Aquacade. During the first New York World’s Fair season, World War II broke out in Europe. Even though the United States did not enter the war until 1941, the American government realised that the US needed a defined identity to be able to unite its people in patriotism. As the US did not have strongly embedded traditions and copied European ideas and design styles until well into the 20th century, identity had to be based on something other than traditions that could be considered unequivocally American. Therefore, American identity focussed on history and symbols, including the American flag and the Statue of Liberty. The Aquacade incorporated the colours, stripes and stars of the American flag in its costumes and props, and even showed 48 dancers dressed as the Statue of Liberty – one for each state (Alaska and Hawaii only became states in 1959).

Four of Billy Rose’s ‘Aquabelles’ stage a fashion show of the past, present and future bathing suit styles at the New York World’s Fair, July 4, 1939. Getty Images.

Favorite place to work?

Even though I am writing on an active performance with important athletes, I have barely moved myself since starting my dissertation work. I have always preferred writing at home as I like the comfort and endless supply of tea and prefer not to have any distractions. As such, I have been living like a hermit, only leaving my room for food and tea.

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.