Alumni Interview: Katerina Pantelides and Alexis Romano – Part 1

On a rainy day in The Courtauld student café, Alexis Romano and Katerina Pantelides, both of whom have recently completed their PhDs in dress history at The Courtauld, generously agreed to tell me a bit about their work. Due to the length of the interview the second half will be posted next Tuesday.

What made you both decide to do a PhD in dress history at the Courtauld?

Alexis: I was living in New York, studying design history with a focus on fashion and textiles. When I finished the degree I didn’t have a concrete plan, but I was still writing and researching so it just seemed like the next logical step. My research, which is based on national fashion and post-war dress, really connected with Rebecca Arnold’s work, which I always admired. So it seemed like a good fit!

Katerina: I did an MA at The Courtauld, and it was interesting because during the time of my MA I always thought that I wanted to be a curator. I was always really interested in theatre and dress and performance, and so I did an internship at the V&A at the Theatre and Performance archive. It was a round the time of the big [Sergei] Diaghilev exhibition and I remember there was all this stuff about émigrés and Russian ballet. I was so interested in all the stories. At that time, I thought I wanted to do a book on Russian émigrés and the ballet in connection with dress and costume, but then I applied for the PhD and I got it and I got the funding, so I worked on that for three years. I ended up working with Rebecca because I met her on the MA and I really liked her and her approach.

What were the topics of your theses?

Alexis: I wrote about the French ready-to-wear industry and its development between 1945 and the late 1960s. I explored this in relation to what was happening in terms of various aspects of the post-war reconstruction of the country and women’s history, and the shift in constructions of fashion, modernity and the representation of women. I looked at how women connected to wider cultural issues through their experience of [ready-made] fashion.

Katerina: My title was ‘Russian Émigré Ballet and the Body: Paris and New York c.1920-50’. I looked at how Russians who emigrated after the Russian revolution in 1917 brought over their dance practice and how they influenced body, dress and exercise culture in the west. I also looked at how dress and exercise culture in the west, specifically in New York, influenced the Russian émigrés. So it was this two-way relationship that I examined.

I am always really interested in how research develops. People start off with having one thing in mind, and then they work on it and it sort of transforms into something completely different. Did you find that your research developed over the course of your study? And if so how?

Alexis: I think research is a personal thing, and connects to who you are. My research evolved a lot, for instance, I ended up studying an earlier period than when I started out. But on a more personal level I became much more interested in women’s personal, everyday experience of dress, focusing on women in their 30s. I turned 30 over the course of my research, and that apparently was a defining moment that I came to terms with through exploring women of a similar age, and their hurdles, in history.

Katerina: That’s so interesting because I do think that you grow up with your PhD in some ways. I started out being very young and idealistic, interested in the ethereal aspects of the ballet and the whole idea of Russian Émigré ballet as a ghostly nation that travels, and then as I got further into the research and started to look at things in archives, I became more interested in the dusty, dirty things. I became much more interested in the realities of travel and what people took with them, what they archived, what they lost, how they talked about things they lost. I think I started out being very interested in the illusions that were taking place and then I became much more interested in the women themselves, the gritty realities.

 Alexis: I wonder why we both became interested in the personal rather than looking at things from a scholar’s lens?

Katerina: I think it’s because with fashion images, for example, you always want to know what’s beneath them, and what’s the reality of the people who consume them and things like that. You always look for depth I think.

A look at Katerina’s research; drawing by Edward Degas, c. late 19th century, from the archive of New York City Ballet dancer, Melissa Hayden.

A look at Katerina’s research; drawing by Edward Degas, c. late 19th century, from the archive of New York City Ballet dancer, Melissa Hayden.

Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style at the MET

De RIBES 1

Jacqueline de Ribes by Richard Avedon; de Ribes as ‘The Last Queen of Paris’ in Vanity Fair; and the designer adjusting her logo.

Showcasing 60 or so ensembles from Countess Jacqueline de Ribes’ wardrobe, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style visually traces the life of de Ribes, a Parisian-born aristocrat whose sense of style and unconventional approach to dress had captivated the (high) society of her day. Now 87 and living in Paris, most of the gowns on display stem from the Countess’s personal archive and span the early 1960s to the present. These are arranged in a series of tableaux from daywear, eveningwear (the bulk of clothing on display), her own designs, to the exotic costumes she devised for dramatic entrances at masked balls. A devoted client and friend of the couturiers of her time, de Ribes was renowned for asking for specific modifications on the couture gowns she ordered, making her own adjustments, combining ‘high and low’ (although ‘low’ seems an ill-suited term for the ready-to-wear de Ribes purchased), and finally launching her own design business in the early 1980s.

Despite the constraints of an aristocratic milieu in which women’s accomplishments were limited to figuring in ‘Best dressed lists’ – something de Ribes mastered early on, entering Eleanor Lambert’s Best-Dressed list in 1956 – the Countess found in fashion a way of channeling her independence and creativity, which would culminate in the launch of her own brand ‘Jacquelines de Ribes’ in 1982.  Yves Saint Laurent had encouraged her to re-consider: ‘He told me I would suffer too much.’ Her husband reluctantly consented, yet resisted risking his own money in the venture. If de Ribes had stood as ‘a muse to haute couture designers,’ she exceeded that role on many levels. It is a point that the exhibition seeks to make, emphasizing her unique sense of style, her role as designer, and her different endeavors in theater, television, interior decorating, and charity events.

Some of the gowns on display at the Jacquelines de Ribes exhibition. Credit: Giovanna Culora

Some of the gowns on display at the Jacquelines de Ribes exhibition. Credit: Giovanna Culora

Yet for all its attempts to convey a more complex portrait of de Ribes, the exhibition falls back at times onto the long-worn tropes that precisely reduce women to the passive role of muse. Introducing her through the lens and pen of Richard Avedon and Truman Capote as one of the ‘swans’ of ‘impeccable elegance,’ the opening panel fails to clearly frame the issues at stake. There is a certain blurriness between her historical characterization and the discourse through which she is ‘advertised’ to the exhibition viewers: the panel notes her ‘precocious sophistication,’ ‘aura of exoticism,’ and ‘innate and self-taught talents,’ seemingly conflating at times her sense of style with an idealized (elite) femininity, and therefore playing to the allure that such discourses arguably retain today. Dramatic lighting effects and a classical music score only further obscure (quite literally) the exhibition’s critical engagement with the material on view. Put forward as a sort of conclusion, quotes from de Ribes that thrive on the classic fashion-elegance-style triumvirate stand as a final blow to a well-intended goal.

It is regrettable that exhibition does not attempt to unpick the loaded implications of de Ribes’ characterizations at the time, but rather ambiguously draws on them. This is despite the exhibition’s focus on de Ribes as a designer, and as a ‘wearer’  – someone who retains agency in asserting a personal identity through fashion, momentarily alleviating the weight of social prescriptions. As Elizabeth Grosz has noted ‘the past contains the resources to much more than the present.’ By addressing that past less obliquely, the Jacqueline de Ribes exhibition could have done more than thrust us back into a time capsule of glamour.

 

Sources:

http://www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2015/jacqueline-de-ribes

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/haute-ticket-jacqueline-de-ribes-at-the-met

Elizabeth Grosz, ‘Histories of a Feminist Future
,’ Signs, Vol. 25, No. 4, Feminisms at a Millennium (Summer, 2000), p. 1019.

Tags: exhibition; glamour; couture; style; Jacqueline de Ribes; MET

Cactuses and Paper Dresses: Frida Kahlo at the New York Botanical Gardens

cactuses in the Enid A Haupt conservatory in the NY Botanical Gardens, inspired by Frida's collection of cactuses in the Casa Azul

cactuses in the Enid A Haupt conservatory in the NY Botanical Gardens, inspired by Frida’s collection of cactuses in the Casa Azul

a replica of Frida's desk, in the conservatory at the NY Botanical Gardens

a replica of Frida’s desk, in the conservatory at the NY Botanical Gardens

Humberto Spindola's sculpture, inspired by Frida Kahlo's The Two Fridas

Humberto Spindola’s sculpture, inspired by Frida Kahlo’s The Two Fridas

The New York Botanical Garden has been transformed into a Mexican, Frida Kahlo-esque paradise.  The Enid A Haupt conservatory, a huge Victorian greenhouse, is now full of cactuses, Frida’s great botanical love. The Casa Azul, the house in which Frida was born, and where she spent most of her adult life with her husband Diego Rivera, has been replicated within the conservatory. The strong blue colour that is so characteristic of the Casa Azul, and from which it derives its name, serves as a backdrop for the hundreds of prickly plants.

The garden is accompanied by a small collection of Kahlo’s paintings that exemplify her interest in and passion for plants and botanical drawings. The lifelike realism with which she rendered floral imagery in her paintings suggests that she was a keen and knowledgeable horticulturalist.

I studied Kahlo’s representation of dress in her paintings, and her own dress, extensively for my MA dissertation, so I was happy to make the trek out to New York’s Botanical Garden in the Bronx. The most interesting aspect of the exhibition was, in my opinion, Humberto Spindola’s lifesize recreation of the two figures in Kahlo’s famous painting The Two Fridas. The painting is a double self portrait; the two identical women sit side by side, holding hands. As in many of Kahlo’s self-portraits, dress is an important tool employed to depict a sense of strong Mexican national pride. The clothing worn by the figure on the right in The Two Fridas is very similar to other depictions of dress in her works, including My Dress Hangs There. The Mexican outfit, indigenous to the women of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, comprised of woven huipil and floorlength skirt, was also worn by Kahlo herself in her day to day life. Frida adopted this style of dress during her early adult life, and continued to wear it until her death. To her, this style of clothing was deeply implicated in her socialist political views and a symbol of her strong feelings of national pride. Since her death, the Tehuantepec style of clothing has taken on connotations as a symbol of the artist herself, and is used by many, including Spindola, as a homage to Kahlo.

My Dress Hangs There, Frida Kahlo,

My Dress Hangs There, Frida Kahlo

Spindola’s work, which stood alone in a rotunda, is a powerful example of how Kahlo’s dress has been transformed into a symbol of her identity. Although recognizable as the scene from The Two Fridas, his sculpture depicts only the figures’ clothing. Their bodies are simple reed canes, woven to create the three-dimensional figures. From a distance, the frames almost disappear into the background, creating the illusion of the dresses floating in space. The clothes, despite their realistic appearance, are made from amate paper using a traditional Aztec technique, posing an interesting question about the role of dress in art and art in dress. Many of the clothes Kahlo depicted in her paintings were real garments that she owned and wore on a regular basis. After her death, Rivera demanded that Kahlo’s bathroom and dressing room remain locked for a minimum period of fifty years, and, in 2004, when the rooms were finally opened by the conservators and curators at the Casa Azul, many of the clothes discovered inside were in perfect condition thanks to the dark, cool environment. Many were very similar, or indeed identical, to those Kahlo rendered in paint. For her, the garments she painted were very personal, real life objects. Often, as in My Dress Hangs There, clothing stands in for a human figure, acting as a form of self-portrait. However, for the millions of people who have looked at Kahlo’s paintings since her death, the dresses she depicted are nothing more than two-dimensional images. Spindola has played on this paradox between clothing that, to Frida, was very real and everyday, but to an audience was nothing more than a potent painted symbol. In creating these dresses in a lifesize, three-dimensional format, Spindola places them back in the ‘real’ world. But, not quite. Especially when approaching them from a flight of stairs, as the curators of the exhibition enforce, they seem almost like real women, a likelike incarnation of Frida herself. But upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that they are made of paper on a reed frame, and are therefore entirely unwearable. These dresses that have lived purely in the cultural memory of the post-Frida generations have been taken off the canvas and into the three-dimensional world by Spindola, yet remain just as fragile and unwearable.

The Two Fridas

The Two Fridas

Sources

http://www.nybg.org/

Denise Rosenzweig and Magdelena Rosenzweig (eds), Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress: Frida’s Wardrobe, Fashion from the Museo Frida Kahlo, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2007)

Shaping Prêt-à-Porter in the Fourth Republic (1946-58): The Paris/New York Dialogue

The following is an excerpt from a paper I presented last month at Fashion: the 84th Anglo-American Conference of Historians, held at London’s Institute of Historical Research. It was included in a panel on “Collaborations, Conversations and Peer Relationships in Fashion,” which featured individual papers by the four co-founders of the Fashion Research Network that drew on their doctoral research. Each pair of papers fell under one sub-theme, and was followed by a conversation between the authors, in both cases, a researcher in historical dress and a researcher  in contemporary fashion practice, around the evolution of collaboration in that topic. My paper, which explored the dialogue between the Paris and New York fashion industries during the Fourth Republic, preceded one that discussed contemporary global fashion capitals. The ensuing conversation, an interdisciplinary collaboration itself, demonstrated the methodology behind the session.

The autumn 1953 issue of the trade publication Cahiers de l’industrie du vêtement féminin reported on an important fashion industry event: the presentation of the winter collections of Les Trois Hirondelles to American buyers at New York’s lavish Waldorf Astoria hotel. This was a shared label of the French ready-made clothing brands in the Association of Maisons de Couture en Gros, which, from its establishment in the 1940s, was the focus of trade and government efforts to shape the national industry. The occasion attested to the growing dialogue between the French and American ready-made clothing industries since the end of the Second World War and, as the journal sought to indicate, marked an achievement for the French. Indeed, the country had been striving to modernise and compete on the international market, following the examples of their American and other foreign counterparts, since before the war. After the Liberation these goals were heightened in view of France’s weakened couture and ready-made clothing trades, as well as its newfound competition from the American sportswear industry. It was not surprising that the Cahiers, voice of the main trade organisation for ready-made clothing, recounted the events in New York. That a high fashion magazine should document this industrial happening was, however, exceptional: the brands’ New York visit was the focus of an editorial in the September 1953 issue of French Vogue.

The editorial, which featured photographs by Henry Clarke, made a new crucial connection that accompanied the commercial success of the French brands: that of French ready-to-wear to New York’s modernity. Clarke photographed American models, dressed in Trois Hirdondelles clothing, against New York’s iconic spaces such as Times Square and, according to the text, “in view of the Statue of Liberty, in front of Manhattan’s skyscrapers” or “in the shade of newly-built buildings: the ‘Lever building,’ the ‘United Nations’ currently being finished.” Marshall Berman has written that much of New York’s construction in the twentieth century served as performative symbols of modernity, “to demonstrate to the whole world what modern men can build and how modern life can be imagined and lived.” Over time, these structures transformed New York into a “forest of symbols.” The New York City of the 1950s was one of perpetual, large-scale construction, the result of Robert Moses’ ambitious plan for the city’s reconstruction in the 1950s and 1960s. Likewise, in Berman’s “forest,” “axes and bulldozers are always at work, and great works constantly crashing down […] where new meanings are forever springing up with, and falling down from, the constructed trees.” Text and imagery gave magazine readers the impression of constant and modern construction, bolstering Europeans’ widespread characterisation of New York as a powerful political and economic force. Vogue’s imagery was the ideal means to temper fears of Americanisation, and, through fashion, include France in a modern, progressive narrative. Readers could insert themselves into the symbolism of modern life, as Berman described, as it was filtered through to the magazine.

In one photograph a model wore a beige corduroy dress and jacket by Lempereur at the very forefront of the composition. At once towering over the reader, and in the shadow of a modern skyscraper, the United Nations Secretariat building, the image made a statement of epic proportion. The statuesque model mirrored the structure in the background and, with map in hand, surveyed her domain. The image visualised Berman’s notion of cyclical modernity; the newness of the building was reinforced by older structures in other photographs, the surrounding debris evoked destruction, and the empty space foretold the next, more modern construction. Likewise, Les Trois Hirondelles stood for a type of ready-made dress that would disappear at the end of the decade in view of the emergence of new labels, economic systems and political regimes.

Further, the United Nations building, built between 1948 and 1952, could be seen to symbolise international harmony and renewed ties between France and the United States. Founded in 1945 following the Second World War, the United Nations replaced the failed League of Nations, in order to provide a platform for international dialogue. And, perhaps to France’s chagrin, the building represented, not only the new inclusion of the United States in international politics, but its physical leadership. Still, Les Trois Hirondelles provided a means for manufacturers to participate in a sort of cross-cultural exchange. Through this trip to New York, they could confirm the continued dominance of French fashion, which, in turn, bolstered the government’s own projects of reconstruction and modernisation.

Sources:

“Les ‘Hirondelles’ visitent New York,” Vogue, September 1953, 128.

Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, New York: Penguin, 1988 [1982], 288-9.

Faces, Phases and Dress: Zanele Muholi at the Brooklyn Museum

“Faces and Phases” at Isibonelo/Evidence, Brooklyn Museum, May 2015 (photo Alexis Romano)

“Faces and Phases” at Isibonelo/Evidence, Brooklyn Museum, May 2015 (photo Alexis Romano)

Slide of Marcel Kutumela, Alexandra, Johannesburg, 2008 by Zanele Muholi (photo Alexis Romano)

Slide of Marcel Kutumela, Alexandra, Johannesburg, 2008 by Zanele Muholi (photo Alexis Romano)

In a portrait of Marcel Kutumela, beneath the brim of a fedora hat, her cool gaze extends toward and beyond the viewer. It at once implores attention and inserts distance between subject and spectator. Her hat and layered garment cover her body and impart an old world masculinity. Dramatic lighting heightens the theatricality of the picture, which resembles a film noir set, and engages viewers. Yet as soon as they begin to penetrate the surface, the image disappears. It is one slide among many, projected without contextualisation onto a bare wall. Viewers are confronted with other faces, other looks, and the individuals they observed become a community. In this set of photographic portraits, clothing functions as a conspicuous tool in interpreting identity and relationships, between person and group, and spectator and subject.

another image from "Faces and Phases," May 2015 (photo Alexis Romano)

another image from “Faces and Phases,” May 2015 (photo Alexis Romano)

The images are part of Zanele Muholi’s (b. 1972) Faces and Phases portrait series, and the above installation is from Isibonelo/Evidence, the current exhibition of her work at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Viewers are able to view the actual silver gelatin prints in a large room behind the wall of slides, where Muholi’s concern with the materiality of identity is unmistakable. She has written, “In Faces and Phases I present our existence and resistance through positive imagery of black queers (especially lesbians) in South African society and beyond. I show our aesthetics through portraiture. […] Faces express the person, and Phases signify the transition from one stage of sexuality or gender expression and experience to another.” Clothing thus serves to articulate and document the process of identity fabrication, as well as incite viewers to question their own thought process. According to Muholi,

The viewer is invited to contemplate questions such as: what does an African lesbian look like? Is there a lesbian aesthetic or do we express our gendered, racialised and classed selves in rich and diverse ways? Is this lesbian more ‘authentic’ than that lesbian because she wears a tie and the other does not? Is this a man or a woman? Is this a transman? Can you identify a rape survivor by the clothes she wears?

another photo from "Faces and Phases," May 2015 (photo Alexis Romano)

another photo from “Faces and Phases,” May 2015 (photo Alexis Romano)

The cultural context of violence and inequality that envelops these portraits–reinforced by personal testimonies scrawled on an adjacent wall–sets the exhibition’s grave tone. It is the first installation viewers see in Isibonelo/Evidence, and is perhaps the most meaningful counterpart to The Dinner Party (1974-79) by Judy Chicago, which permanently resides in an adjoining room. Like its predecessor, Faces and Phases was created during a moment of upheaval in terms of sexual identity and rights. It also concerns the individual identities of a marginalised group, an how they are classified through their own production. Production in the earlier instance was expressed through the iconography of women in history, and, in Muholi’s work, by the ways everyday people style themselves. This helps visitors relate to the dynamics of being and seeing, and urges them to reflect on their own participation in the politics of appearance today.

Red Capes and Glitter Jelly Heels: An Interview with Curators Colleen Hill and Ariele Elia

1.Museum at FIT website with image from the Comme des Garçons, Spring 2015 runway show

Museum at FIT website with image from the Comme des Garçons, Spring 2015 runway show

Unlicensed copy of Madeleine Vionnet’s “Little Horses” dress, rayon crepe, black and gold seed beads, c. 1925, USA, 76.125.1

Unlicensed copy of Madeleine Vionnet’s “Little Horses” dress, rayon crepe, black and gold seed beads, c. 1925, USA, 76.125.1

Detail of "Little Horses" dress

Detail of “Little Horses” dress

I first met Colleen Hill, associate curator at The Museum at FIT during a visit to the museum archive to research garments by Emmanuelle Khanh in 2008. We bonded over our love of 1960s fashion and French culture. I met Ariele Elia, assistant curator, in 2011 at an exhibition opening—she was dressed as an 1890s tennis player and I went in 1860s croquet wear. And on 13th January the three of us caught up over coffee on 7th Avenue.

What were your reasons for choosing this career path?

CH: I’ve loved fashion, museums, and writing for as long as I can remember. I can’t imagine a job better suited to my interests.

AE: From a young age I was exposed to the inner workings of the fashion industry. My mother started off as a fashion designer, but ended up owning a series of women’s apparel boutiques. While working in her stores I enjoyed learning about the business side of fashion, but was more fascinated with the creative process of the designers. In college I majored in Art History, and almost went on to pursue an M.A. in that field, until I realised Fashion History existed. However, this was not a viable career option in California. So I moved to New York to continue my studies and could not be happier about that decision.

Your current project?

CH: I’m opening an exhibition in February 2016 called Fairy Tale Fashion. It will use both historical and contemporary garments to illustrate more than twelve fairy tales, including well-known stories such as “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” and “Sleeping Beauty.” In addition to offering a brief history of the fairy tales and their significance, the show will highlight their direct references to fashion.

AE: Currently I am co-curating an exhibition titled Global Fashion Capitals, set to open in June 2015. The first half of the exhibition looks at dynamics that allowed Paris, New York, London, and Milan to become established as global powers in fashion. While the second half of the exhibition explores emerging cities that attempt to rise as new fashion capitals, including Istanbul, São Paulo, Seoul, Mumbai, and Shanghai.

Your current object of fascination in the collection?

CH: I’m currently researching a hooded, red cape from the eighteenth century.

AE: I am fascinated with Madeleine Vionnet’s “Little Horses” dress from 1921. While researching for Faking It, I had found a few versions of this dress that I had assumed were unauthorised copies, including the one in our collection. Recently I had discovered that Eva BOEX, a French atelier was authorised to create copies of the dress. The description of her version is very close to the one in our collection, so I am hoping to find a sketch to confirm my findings.

Can you discuss your curatorial vision? What do you enjoy most about curating? What aspect do you find most challenging?

CH: I’ve organised numerous exhibitions in the Fashion History Gallery at The Museum at FIT, which are intended to be straightforward, educational, and, of course, historical. Within those parameters, I tend to select topics that are subtly provocative. For example, I’ve curated exhibitions about the role of women in the fashion industry, gender and fashion, sustainable fashion, and lingerie. I aim to put together shows that are accessible and entertaining, but also intelligent.

I find nearly every aspect of curatorial work to be enjoyable, but identifying a small but crucial bit of research is especially rewarding.

Like most curators, I would imagine, one of the most challenging aspects of my work is meeting short deadlines.

AE: I have curated a few exhibitions in the museum’s Fashion and Textile History Gallery. I love to investigate interdisciplinary topics within fashion such as fashion and technology and fashion law.

The aspect I enjoy most about curating is studying an object. It is incredible what a garment can tell you by just observing it.

One aspect that I am constantly working to improve is editing. There is so much information a curator would like to tell their public; however a curator must synthesise the content into a digestible form. I don’t want to overwhelm someone visiting the museum for the first time, but I also want to maintain an academic standard to a fashion historian. It’s a difficult balance!

Can you name an exhibition that marked you?

CH: My earliest museum memory is going to see Colleen Moore’s fairy castle at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. It’s essentially a massive, meticulously constructed doll’s house. I was completely fascinated by its beauty and intricacy, and also the way it was presented—with only one part of the castle lit at a time, allowing the visitor to focus on its details. I’m obviously still interested in fairy-tale worlds!

AE: Stylized Sculpture: Contemporary Japanese Fashion (2007) was the first fashion exhibition I had seen. I was in awe over the incredible shapes of the garments designed by Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, and Yohji Yamamoto. It was here that I realised there were other people that spoke the same language I did.

Can you discuss a personal fashion memory?

CH: I found a copy of Radical Rags by Joel Lobenthal in my local library when I was ten years old. I became completely obsessed with it. The book affected the way I dressed, my interest in music, and my future career choice.

AE: I always have fond memories of my mother getting ready for work. She was a huge fan of Donna Karan in the 90s. Her 7 easy piece collection worked perfectly for my mom and her busy schedule. She always looked so elegant in her black wrap skirt, body suit, and large gold belt. I wish I could emulate her style.

Can you discuss an item of clothing or an accessory that you no longer have but still think about?

CH: I purchased a pair of Dr. Martens when I was about 14. They were brown with a subtle cheetah print. Since the shoes were second-hand, they didn’t even fit well, but I wore them with everything.

AE: When I was about 10 I owned a pair of glitter jelly heels. In the heel was an Eiffel Tower that floated in water and glitter like a snow globe. I wish I would have kept them!

If you could be dressed by any past couturier, who would it be?

CH: André Courrèges.

AE: Charles James. I absolutely love the architectural shapes he created! He made the women he dressed look so elegant. I wish I could have his Butterfly dress remade in lavender.

MA Study Trip to New York City: Voices from the past, visions for the future: a visit to Condé Nast’s New York archive.

One has only to scan the bibliographies of most major academic fashion articles to see that Vogue maintains a position of the highest authority in sartorial research, particularly concerning the interwar years. This is not to say that other contemporary fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar lack academic importance: more so that the material bound to each issue was not deemed worthy of preservation back then, in fact much of Bazaar’s archive – including prints by Richard Avedon, Man Ray and Louise Dahl-Wolfe – was destroyed in the 1980s. This was not the case with Condé Nast’s archive, which dates back to the 1920s, instigated by Mr Nast’s awareness of the monetary value of this vast collection of images. In our recent visit to the New York archive, Shawn Waldron, Senior Director of Archives and Records, showed us just how vast this collection really is. State of the art, temperature-controlled rooms house the thousands of high-quality original prints in colourful, expertly alphabetized folders. The effect is mesmerising, like a sweetshop lined with Steichens and Horsts, instead of Flying Saucers and Humbugs.

01 02

Another room boasts a staggering quantity of loose and bound copies of publications, such as Architectural Digest, Glamour and Vanity Fair and, of course, Vogue. A researcher from a well-known fashion label pores over bound copies of the latter, highlighting the scholastic potential of the archive. Loose copies of many publications are also available for perusal, offering a more haptic experience for the viewer. The archive today is a dynamic editorial asset, both from an information and commercial point of view, and a far cry from ‘The Morgue’ that it once was. Mr Nast’s business model was ahead of its time, incorporating what is known today as ‘Blue Economy’: the process of turning waste into revenue. ‘The Morgue’ transformed into the active editorial asset that it is today, generating revenue through digital licensing and distribution of images.

As an informative resource, apart from the proliferation of beautiful fashion images, the intricate daily contracts visible on each spread, detailing the names, locations and costs of each shoot, are invaluable to the historian. What emerges is the closely linked relationship between business and preservation, and business’ potential in shaping the fashion canon. Were it not for Mr. Nast’s willingness to invest in the protection of his publication’s material, alongside his fastidious account-keeping, this barometer of social and cultural change would not exist.

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The archive promotes cultural research from many other trajectories; with publications, including Charm exposing what editors told young homemakers was necessary to set up home in the interwar period. Similar interdisciplinary research pathways exist within House & Garden, Architectural Digest and Condé Nast Traveler. These publications bring the past alive, and are a testament to the complexity of day-to-day concerns.

These research opportunities would not be possible without the painstakingly selective process of acquisition, organisation, and digitisation, undertaken by Waldron’s team. The resulting collection, with millions of objects, is unique in fashion publishing. Despite the challenges faced by a small team of archivists and photo editors, working with an ever-growing collection, the archive has become a valued editorial asset that can generate income, promote fashion research, and influence new interdisciplinary study.

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MA Study Trip to New York City: A Different Kind of Beautiful Thing: Helena Rubinstein, Beauty is Power

Graham Sutherland, Helena Rubinstein in Red Brocade Balenciaga Gown, 1957, Oil on Canvas, 156.9 cm x 92.7 cm, Daniel Katz Gallery, London.

Graham Sutherland, Helena Rubinstein in Red Brocade Balenciaga Gown, 1957, Oil on Canvas, 156.9 cm x 92.7 cm, Daniel Katz Gallery, London.

Graham Sutherland’s portrait of an 85 year-old Helena Rubinstein can be viewed as an ode to her legacy, which was built upon the deliberate rejection of convention. Rubinstein’s sagging neck and jawline, sallow complexion and thin hair offer a genuine depiction of age, something which is glossed over in many of the other portraits included in the exhibition. The painting’s prominent position in the first room therefore reinforces the exhibition’s primary focus on the formidable story of the woman behind the brand.

Though such realism could be seen to detach the portrait from serving any commercial function, Sutherland’s emphasis on colour and surface textures becomes a purposeful inflection of Rubinstein’s personal ethos, which was inseparable from her company.

Infamously quoted as saying that, “there are no ugly women, just lazy ones”, Rubinstein’s over-rouged cheeks and matching red lacquered nails and lips, become suggestive of the means to instantly participate in established ideals of femininity. On the other hand, the jewellery that adorns Rubinstein’s hands and neck equals the prominence of the cosmetics shown in the portrait. This removes the hierarchy between products of high and lower end, democratizing ideals of taste. In this light, instead of ‘established femininity’, Rubinstein is using cosmetics to promote the ‘new-age’ femininity that her salons made available to all women, and which distinguished her career from contemporaries, such as Elizabeth Arden.

As the exhibition unfolds, and with it Rubenstein’s lifelong preoccupation with primitive and surrealist art, it is clear that she did advocate prescriptive ideas of beauty, nor claim that a monolithic notion of femininity is necessarily the ultimate goal. Indeed, Rubinstein stated that, “I like different kinds of beautiful things and I’m not afraid to use them in unconventional ways”.  The priority of self-fashioning as an external expression of personality, rather than as a disguise, unites Rubinstein’s brand of beauty with the essence of the exotic figures that she collected. Femininity is therefore the by-product of participating in the desire to reveal the best, most authentic version of the self.

The Balenciaga brocade gown that Rubinstein is wearing in her portrait embodies the philosophy of her salon, which aimed to inspire its female cliental to make choices that expressed their own personalities. The bright red floral, oriental fabric informs the decision to accessorize with complimentary red and pink makeup. The almost overwhelming use of colour defies the conventional depiction of age that traditionally relies on subdued tones.  The gown subsequently becomes an emboldened expression of Rubinstein’s innate qualities that reject convention and look to the modern age. This is further emphasized by the physical inclusion of the gown, and the fact that she had it shortened, to ensure it remained relevant in the years following the portrait’s completion.

Rubinstein’s participation in self-creation connects her aesthetic ideals directly with non-western cultures that place value on individuality and inherent difference.  Cosmetics are re-contextualized as they encourage each wearer to be the most powerful version of themselves.

 

Image source:  Helena Rubinstein, Beauty is Power exhibition catalogue, page 135.

Text source: Mason Klein (2014) Helena Rubinstein, Beauty is Power. Yale University Press, New Haven.

MA Study Trip to New York City: The Museum at FIT

In February the MA History of Dress students had a week long study trip to New York to visit archives and museums. The next six posts will share various aspects of the trip and the objects we saw. 

Part of the Yves Saint Laurent and Halston: Fashioning the '70s exhibition.

Part of the Yves Saint Laurent and Halston: Fashioning the ’70s exhibition.

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A Halston dress from the Fashioning the ’70s exhibition.

On a recent study trip to New York, the MA group were invited to an Alumni event at The Museum at FIT. Emma McClendon, who graduated from the Courtauld in 2011 is now an assistant curator at FIT, hosted the event, which was an exhibition she had co-curated: Yves Saint Laurent and Halston: Fashioning the 70s. The exhibition is the first to examine the careers and work of two of the biggest designers in 20th century fashion side-by-side. As both Saint Laurent’s and Halston’s designs came to exemplify, the 1970s has been considered a ‘singular and dynamic era in fashion history,’ and was also a decade framed by three themes which inspired the designers’ collections: menswear, exoticism, and vintage historicism.

When entering the space, the clothing is separated into platforms and pods.  The clothing on the platforms framed the pods, and also demonstrated how the designer’s visions and approaches to dress resulted in very similar outcomes, often indistinguishable from one another. Whereas, running through the middle of the exhibition space the pods established the juxtapositions between the designers, through the three themes and really showcased the differences, particularly towards the end of the decade. This was especially highlighted in the last pod, which was dedicated toward the influence of historical referencing upon the designers.

Saint Laurent was heavily influenced by fashions of the Belle Époque, which can be seen in some of his more feminine, yet, dramatic creations. He also drew upon the trend for vintage dressing, which had been emerging on the streets of Paris at the time. On the other hand, Halston was enamoured by the Hollywood glamour of the smaller time period of the 1930s and 1940s. He looked to women couturiers that had dominated high fashion during the inter-war period as sources of inspiration for his own pieces. Here, the identities of the two designers are really established.  For me, the third section really solidified the vocabularies of both designers as Halston became known as ‘the streamlined, unisex, minimalist,’ whilst Saint Laurent became ‘the fantastical colourist.’

This streamlined and minimalistic nature of Halston’s creations is effortlessly captured in the construction of the blue evening dress shown in the accompanying image. Made in 1972, the dress was gifted to the museum by Lauren Bacall. The blue, silk jersey dress features two long bands of fabric that can be tied in various ways to show the amount of skin desired. The fabric is what makes the dress, there are no obvious decorative elements, for example no buttons or zips can be seen, even as closures. This is because Halston did not believe in his clothes as having any ‘ostentatious decorative elements’ to them, and looked toward the inspiration of designers, such as Madeleine Vionnet and Claire McCardell for this more streamlined approach. This look also drew influence from 1930s bathing suits. In this respect, Halston appropriated the silhouettes of daytime swimwear and turned them into eveningwear ensembles.

Sources

https://i-d.vice.com/en_gb/article/ysl-and-halston-show-brings-the-sexy-70s-back-to-nyc

East Village Eye: New Wave Fashion of the Recent Future

Modern Girls at Play, East Village Eye, June 1979.

Girls in rehearsal shorts

Rhonda, in clothes from East Village boutique Natasha.

Models in a mix of vintage finds.

East Village Eye – a magazine published between 1979 and 1987 – shows the medium’s power to encapsulate a moment and to convey the excitement of collaboration, in terms of its contributors and of the collages of text and images of art, music, fashion and life in general in ‘80s New York. Drawing on the cut-up aesthetic of fanzines and the pop culture graphics of comic books, it brings to mind Guy Lawley’s discussion of their role in crystallizing subcultural ideals: ‘In some important ways, the origins of punk itself are closely linked to the comics medium.  By the winter of 1975-76, the new music coming out of New York’s CBGBs club (The Ramones, Television, Blondie, Patti Smith etc) was generating an intense local buzz, but little wider acclaim. People were calling it things like “street rock” until Punk magazine appeared in December of 1975 to give the scene a catchy name and (the appearance of) a unified identity. Indeed, it is claimed that The Eye was the first to use the term ‘hip hop’ – in an interview with rap pioneer Afrika Bambaataa – and these two subcultures dominate its pages, influencing art and pop culture in equal measures.

The Eye depicts the chaos of downtown and the possibilities that opened up for young artists – of all genres, who were able to rent cheap spaces in a part of the city abandoned by big commerce.  The area quickly became the generator of new art, and home to a string of vintage and fashion boutiques that dressed its participants. It speaks to the significance of space and place in hot housing trends of various kinds, and of the vibrancy of street culture at the time – punk and hip hop intersect on its pages, and the influence and significance of Situationist art co-mingle with graffiti and New Wave.

With its recognizably ‘80s aesthetics, The Eye is a remnant of the recent past, but simultaneously projects a confusing – but fascinating – sense of actually being about the recent future, through its representation of art and fashion culture of the time: it’s gone, but it’s still here, over, but still suggesting something new. This is reflected in editor Leonard Abrams’ statement at the front of the magazine, which says:

East Village Eye is a new newspaper for new culture. Enjoying a mutually parasitic relationship with the East Village and surrounding areas, The Eye … promotes the new mutations of Positivist Futurism, put forth in the watchwords: “It’s all true.”

Inevitably, fashion is a significant component of this mix – a way to embody and perform the new ideals and become a living rendition of the artistic and subcultural manifestos expressed on the magazine’s pages.  And it is now possible to examine these influences in detail, as several copies of East Village Eye are now available to download http://www.east-village-eye.com/issues-year.html, including the June 15 1979 edition with its retro-futurist style fashion supplement.

This edition’s cover and the ensuing pages cut and paste together fashion spreads and adverts that show the promiscuous combinations of periods and styles that somehow coalesced into a recognizably New Wave dress code. Its focus on Pop Art glamour – as seen through ‘40s Hollywood make-up, ‘30s rehearsal shorts and floral tea dresses, is balanced with classic ‘50s casual wear for men and sharp suits that recall ‘30s gangster films. Even the photographic style deployed is a combination of old and new – some are styled to look like Richard Avedon shots of poised elegance, others rehearse the ‘straight-up’ that i-D magazine would come to define a couple of years later.

The focus on second-hand stores and – in most cases – the anonymity of the clothes origins suggest individuality and creative freedom from the ‘official’ fashion world. However, the text recognizes that these same styles and periods were also influencing ready-to-wear. This is a reminder that, as Angela McRobbie has written: ‘Most of the youth subcultures of the post-war period have relied on second-hand clothes found in jumble sales and ragmarkets as the raw material for the creation of style.’ And yet: ‘not all junk is used a second time around. Patterns of taste and discrimination shape the desires of second-hand shoppers as much as they do those who prefer the high street or the fashion showroom.’

Film, literature, music, comics, the street – both of the current and earlier times become cyphers for styling the downtown art/fashion/music performer that The Eye spoke to and for.  Download and be part of the recent future.

With thanks to Leonard Abrams for his generosity in giving access to issues of East Village Eye, and allowing us to reproduce these images.

 

Sources:

http://98bowery.com/return-to-the-bowery/millers-memorabilia.php

http://www.east-village-eye.com/news.html

https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/tag/east-village-eye/

http://hyperallergic.com/161064/the-east-village-eye-where-art-hip-hop-and-punk-collided/

http://www.nytimes.com/1988/08/04/garden/east-village-new-wave-of-creativity.html

Guy Lawley, ‘”I like Hate and I hate everything else”: The Influence of Punk on Comics,’ in Roger Sabin, ed., Punk Rock: So What? (London: Routledge, 1999)

Angela McRobbie, ‘Second-Hand Dresses and the Role of the Ragmarket,’ in Angela McRobbie, ed., Zootsuits and Second-Hand Dresses (London: Routledge, 1989)