5 Minutes With… Alexandra Sive

We’ve been busy working on our dissertations, so we’re taking the opportunity to get to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Alexandra discusses bodily taboos, her spooky virtual exhibition and Madeleine Vionnet.

What is your dissertation about? 

My dissertation is about maternity corsets in the 1920s and 30s. I’m drawing on Mary Douglas a lot, specifically her work on the social concept of dirt, which she designates as “matter out of place”, something which does not conform to social boundaries or systems of meaning. Drawing on Durkheim, that which cannot be explained or contained within social ideology must be deemed taboo and thereby removed either into the realm of the sacred or the profane, shut away from society. This is precisely what happens with pregnancy taboos, where the pregnant woman is shut away, both disgusting and holy.

I first encountered Douglas in second year at university, while writing about blood and other body fluids in the work of John Donne and George Herbert, and I came back to her in my finals, writing about Pope and Swift and all the bodily pairings in their poems. I’ve always seen literature and dress as being more connected than people would think – they’re both forms of communication that we use every day. Some clothes are just what we wear; others are poetry.

I’m really interested in corsets more generally, too – the idea that, for such a long time, society has been obsessed with holding in and reshaping the supposed site of reproductive power is fascinating to me. All too often, these conversations are rooted in transphobia, but I think it’s clear that the misogyny that arises, in part, from what wombs can do affects everyone in proximity to it, not just people who can give birth.

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

I’m absolutely loving my dissertation, but I also have a soft spot for my virtual exhibition, which was about the more macabre aspects of Victorian mourning dress. I had never done a piece of academic work which was so visual. I wanted to make it really spooky, so I set it in The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, which is one of the oldest surviving operating theatres, set in the very top of St Thomas’s Church in Southwark. The first room was full of explanatory texts and artefacts about the cult of mourning that developed during this period, including bits on widowhood (more taboos!) and the involvement of children in rituals of death. I wanted to line the staircase up to the operating theatre itself with black velvet so that it would be like being born through the drapery of the mourning bed into the afterlife. This section I called “The Ghosts” – visitors would come onto the floor of the theatre, but up in the viewing gallery, standing over them, would be faceless figures in mourning dress. It was so much fun to plan!

What are you wearing today?

I’m currently wearing a dress called the Vivienne from Réalisation Par in a really pretty blue-violet floral print – my body has changed so much over quarantine, so my mission right now is to find things that fit my new figure and make me feel comfortable. I love this dress because it fits so perfectly and shows the shape of my body, but it’s also really comfy and light, which is a must right now because it’s so hot in London. I’m barefoot, and I’m wearing some really pretty Murano millefiori heart earrings from Etsy. Aside from writing, the only thing I’m doing today is getting my hair dyed – it’s currently a pink bob, but I want to grow it out, so I’m getting it dyed back natural. I think I’m going to have to change because I would be distraught if I got dye on this dress!

Do you have an early fashion memory to share? 

When I was a child, I loved making things. I was always covered in paint and clay and whatnot. My mother found an incredible sewing class called Little Hands Design, run by a woman who is a force of nature called Astrid. It’s still going, and it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I remember going into class as a very young child, before I was able to use a needle, let alone a machine, and just draping fabric on the mannequins. I thought it was incredible the way that something flat and square could take on so much shape and movement, depending on how you tied it up and later where you put the pins. I think it’s why I’m now a bit obsessed with Vionnet, whom Rebecca introduced us to this year. Her designs have so much life in them, and all from the way that she cuts. She’s a real poet.

Documenting Fashion Visits NYC, Dec 2016: Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Center

The current exhibition on show at the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the MET has been given the title Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion. Rather than exploring a theme, as Judith Clark has so brilliantly done with Vulgar at the Barbican Centre, the MET’s assistant curator Jessica Regan presents viewers with a mix of fashion with no unifying theme or trend or feature other that the 50 pieces were acquired over the last decade, and that each may be termed a ‘masterwork’.

HOUSE OF WORTH (French, 1858-1956) Jean-Philippe Worth (French, 1856-1926) BALL GOWN, 1898, haute couture | Light blue silk satin brocaded à la disposition with yellow and ivory silk; embroidered with silver sequins, clear rhinestones, and clear and silver seed beads; trimmed with ivory cotton lace, black silk velvet, and light blue silk mousseline | Brooklyn, Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Paul Pennoyer, 1965 (2009.306. 1324a, b)

A decade since the MET’s last acquisitions show, blog.mode: addressing fashion, in 2007, Masterworks marks a shift in the collecting strategy of the museum when it comes to fashion. The phrase ‘Unpacking Fashion’ speaks to this. The set of the exhibition is formed from crates, suggestive of the archives in which the garments are stored to best preserve them, from which they are then unpacked for display. But the term also refers to the academic practice of unpacking an idea, a point, a proposition in order to understand its significance. Why is a sculptural, slashed tulle gown by Viktor and Rolf worthy of being exhibited in a museum? What makes it seminal, important, a masterwork?

The dress in question is not part of everyday dress trends seen on women walking down the street; it was not mass produced, indeed it was worn by only a handful of people. It may not warrant a significant space in an encyclopaedia of Western fashion, but the challenging design and painstaking skill of its construction make it worthy of celebration. No one else, quite simply, has made anything like it.

VIKTOR & ROLF (Dutch, founded 1993) Viktor Hosting (Dutch, born 1969) Rolf Snoren (Dutch, born 1969) BALL GOWN, spring/summer 2010 | Blue polyester tulle, and black silk-synthetic moiré embroidered with white plastic sequins | Purchase, Friends of the Costume Institute Gifts, 2011 (2011.8)

The main Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery is organised chronologically, with each garment accompanied by an in-depth explanation, or rationalisation, of its presence in the exhibition. Designers represented range from Paul Poiret to Yves Saint Laurent and Vivienne Westwood. The design advances of new names – Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga – and less widely known – Noritaka Tatehana, maker of the extraordinary heel-less shoes favoured by Daphne Guinness – are acknowledged.

Left: MADELEINE VIONNET (French, 1876-1975) EVENING DRESS, 1929, haute couture | Dress: pink silk tulle, embroidered with pink rayon floss; slip: pink silk gauze and crepe de chine | Purchase, Friends of the Costume Institute Gifts, 2009 (2009.248a, b)  Right: JOHN GALLIANO (British, born Gibraltar, 1960) EVENING DRESS, spring/summer 1999 | Peach nylon lace | Gift of John Galliano, 2000 (2000.168)

HOUSE OF BALENCIAGA (French, founded 1937) Cristóbal Balenciaga (Spanish, 1895-1972) DRESS, 1967, haute couture | Green silk gazar | Gift of Judith Straeten, 2015 (2015.711)

The Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery at the end of the exhibition features ensembles donated by designers on the occasion of the retirement of long-serving curator Harold Koda in January this year. These represent specific masterworks long and especially admired by Koda and include a design, re-made for the occasion, from Karl Lagerfeld’s first collection for Chanel. This stands alongside an intricately embroidered frock coat by Raf Simons for Dior, across from a screen featuring tributes from the great and good of today’s industry.

Karl Lagerfeld (French, born Hamburg, 1938) DRESS, 2015; original design: spring/summer 1983, haute couture | Black silk crepe embroidered with pearls, clear rhinestones, and red, green, gold and orange beads | Gift of CHANEL, in honour of Harold Koda, 2016 (2016.632)

HOUSE OF CHANEL (French, founded 1913) Karl Lagerfeld (French, born Hamburg, 1938) SUIT, spring/summer 2011 Jacket and skirt: navy and cream cotton-acrylic nylon-polyester tweed with ivory nylon net; blouse: ivory rayon twill | Gift of CHANEL, 2013 (2013.157.1a-e, h)

Left: HOUSE OF DIOR (French, founded 1947) Raf Simons (Belgian, born 1968) ENSEMBLE, autumn/winter 2014-15, haute couture | Coat and waistcoat: black silk faille embroidered with polychrome silk and metal thread, silver plastic sequins, and clear and iridescent glass beads; blouse: black brushed-wool twill; trousers: black wool flannel | Gift of Christian Dior Couture in honour of Harold Koda, 2016 (2016.256a-d)  Right: HOUSE OF DIOR (French, founded 1947) Christian Dior (French,1905-1957) “MYSTÈRE” COAT, autumn/winter 1947-48 | Black wool melton and dark green silk taffeta | Gift of Irene Stone, in memory of her daughter Mrs. Ethel S. Greene, 1959 (C.I.59.26.2)

The lingering question posited by Masterworks is that age old debate: is fashion art? It is clear what the MET believes. The first work you see as you come down the stairs into the exhibition is an expertly crafted Viktor and Rolf dress which resembles a painting smashed over the head of a mannequin – an attempt, surely, to reinforce the point that each garment should be viewed with the same attitude as that afforded by a Van Gogh upstairs. Andrew Bolton, curator-in-charge, has commented on the Costume Institute’s renewed mission ‘to present fashion as a living art that interprets history, becomes part of the historical process, and inspires subsequent art.’ It is a vow restated by this thoughtful exhibition, with extraordinary skill and innovation displayed and emphasised by curious pairings and dramatic exchanges – no more so than in the vivid red of a John Galliano for Martin Margiela coat in conversation with its 18th century inspiration.

Left: MAISON MARGIELA (French, founded 1988) John Galliano (British, born Gibraltar, 1960) ENSEMBLE, spring/summer 2015, artisanal | Coat: red brushed wool needle-felted with red silk chiffon trimmed with red rayon velvet; bra top: black nylon net embroidered with gold metallic thread and gold plastic sequins; briefs: black polyester rib-knit embroidered with gold metallic thread, gold plastic sequins, and gold glass bugle beads; shorts: black cotton denim | Purchase, Friends of the Costume Insititute Gifts, 2015 (2015.541a-f)  Right: French COAT, 1787-92 Red wool broadcloth Purchase | Irene Lewisohn Trust Gift, 1992 (1992.65)

ISSEY MIYAKE (Japanese, born 1938) BUSTIER, autumn/winter 1980-81 | Red moulded polyester resin and cellulose nitrate  | Purchase, Friends of the Costume Institute Gifts, 2015 (2015.61)

Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until 5 February, 2017.