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.

5 Minutes with… Genevieve Davis

As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Genevieve discusses Austrian fashion designer Maria Likarz, the modern woman as machine and her love of jewellery with a story.

What is your dissertation about? 

I am writing about Maria Likarz, an incredible Austrian fashion designer who worked at the Wiener Werkstätte, a cooperative design workshop in Vienna, during its tenure from 1903-1932. This period saw the rise of many famous fashion names, including Coco Chanel, Paul Poiret, and Madeleine Vionnet, but no one has ever heard of Maria Likarz! Dress history during this period tends to focus on France, so delving into Austrian fashion has been really fun. The diversity of Likarz’s talents was profound; she created fashion designs, jewellery, textiles, ceramics, lace, and even a few collections of wallpaper. I could spend all day looking at her designs in the archive of Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts.

Maria Likarz, Faschings- oder Theaterkostüm, 1925,
Wiener Werkstätte Archive, Museum of Applied Art, Vienna.

Maria Likarz, Romulus, 1928, Wiener Werkstätte Archive,
Museum of Applied Art, Vienna.

Maria Likarz, Romulus, 1928, Wiener Werkstätte Archive,
Museum of Applied Art, Vienna.

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

I would say my Virtual Exhibition, and my dissertation is running a really close second. I designed my exhibition around the connection between women and machinery in the early twentieth century. Some of my favourite exhibits included Fernand Léger’s 1924 silent film, Ballet mécanique, a recreation of an automobile painted by Sonia Delaunay, a Kodak Ensemble from 1929, and Look 17 from Prada’s Spring 2012 ready-to-wear collection. Honestly, I loved every exhibit. That exhibition is one of the coolest projects I have ever done!

Original Unic – model L2 painted in a recreation of the style of Sonia Delaunay
Automobile c. 1920, painted later
Museo Automovilístico y de la Moda
Málaga, Spain

Favourite dress history image? 

Narrowing down one choice was a battle, but this Norman Parkinson photograph for Vogue in 1950 is one of my favourite fashion photographs of all time. The subject, Mary Drage, was an English ballerina for Sadler’s Wells Ballet. She stands in front of John Singer Sargent’s 1899 painting The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tennant. I love this image because Drage’s grace and delicate elegance suggest she stepped right out of the painting. After endless months of leggings and sweatshirts, the sumptuous tactility of each gown makes me long for the time when we can all finally dress up again.

Norman Parkinson, 1950, Vogue.

What are you wearing today? 

With our dissertation deadline fast approaching, it is a library day for me. So, I am wearing a pair of teal, white, and navy flowy pants from Calypso, a white V-neck t-shirt, and my favourite gunmetal grey Chanel flats. I also have my softest white knit cardigan on hand because I get cold so easily! And can’t forget those blue light glasses.

How would you describe your style? 

A tough one! I went through several different phases during my high school and university years. When I asked a friend, she described my current style as ‘cosmopolitan chic.’ I like to think of it as classic and elegant. I prefer to shop vintage, I wear a lot of black, and I love bold or patterned jackets. Give me an LBD and some black, heeled booties and I am happy. That being said, I could never function without jeans and trainers. I also adore jewellery. Some of my favourite pieces include a gold ring given by my dad to my mom, which she then passed down to me; my small ruby and gold hoops; and a set of gold bangles (another family heirloom!). I love any piece of clothing or jewellery with a story behind it.

What are you hoping to do next? 

After finishing my MA, I am hoping to return to an auction house, gallery, or fashion house. I would also love to work at a museum in the dress department. I have worked in the luxury industry in the past and can’t wait to jump back in!

Do you have an early fashion memory to share?

When I was three or four, I was the flower girl in my aunt’s wedding. There is an amazing photo of me wearing this gorgeous lilac dress with flowers around the neckline. I was completely obsessed with the dress until my parents gave me a piece of wedding cake, and the photo shows me, in my pretty dress, stuffing cake into my mouth with my hands. Luckily, the dress remained pristine!

5 Minutes with… Kathryn Reed

As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Kathryn, the co-editor of this blog, discusses ghostliness, layering necklaces for Zoom and the elusive photographer Nina Leen.

 

What are you wearing today?

A brown halter neck top over a striped button-down shirt. I didn’t realise that the shirt had a button missing when I picked it off the £1 rail in Brixton last week – hence the layering.  Also: a long black skirt and brown work boots with paint on. They make me look artistic.

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

Having seminars on Zoom has definitely made me wear more necklaces at once.

What is your dissertation about?

It’s on the photography of Nina Leen. She was born in Russia and moved to America in 1939; from then on, she became a really prolific photographer for Life magazine (and was one of the very first women to work there). She took some amazing, perceptive photographs of American culture and fashion in the 1940s and 1950s, but she’s an elusive figure and barely anything has been written about her. I’m interested in how her outsider status shaped the pictures, especially in the context of the all-American middle-class image that Life was promoting.

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

I wrote my first essay about the ghostliness of clothing that isn’t being worn – I find it so interesting to consider the reasons empty clothes can sometimes unsettle us. In the essay, I compared the shrouded figures in William Hope’s spirit photography with Eugène Atget’s photos of deserted Parisian shop windows. I was quite frightened while writing it, but it was really fun.

Eugène Atget, Boulevard de Strasbourg, Corsets, Paris, 1912. Accessed via https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/286216

William Hope, Elderly couple with a young female ‘spirit’, c. 1920. Accessed via https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/objects/co8228833/elderly-couple-with-female-spirit-photograph

And your favourite image?

At the moment, my favourite is one by Nina Leen from Life’s December 1944 feature on teenagers. It documents a trend at the time for teenagers to wear masculine clothes, and I love this picture of a girl who had borrowed her dad and brother’s clothes to change into after school.

Nina Leen, ‘Pat Woodruff wears after-school costume of blue jeans and a checked shirt’, Life, 11 December 1944.