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!

Dress and Movement in the work of Sonia Delaunay

Cover SD

Somewhat embarrassingly, I only managed to make it to the Tate’s Sonia Delaunay exhibition in its last week, but I was so glad that I did. I went not knowing much about Delaunay prior to stepping through the door, and because it was held in the Tate Modern, I was expecting it to focus mainly on paintings. However, it was her textiles, fashion designs and illustrations that underpinned the whole exhibition. It was immediately apparent that textiles and dress were hugely important to her during her career.

The earliest example of her work in textiles appears in the second room – a cradle cover made in 1911 for her newborn son. Interestingly, the Tate labels it as her ‘first abstract work,’ highlighting the fact that they conflate her work in textile and paint. This is, to an extent, completely understandable as there are numerous similarities between the aesthetic she employs in both. The way blocks of colour are juxtaposed is identical in both mediums. However, to consider the cradle cover, and her later fashion and textile designs, purely as decorative art is to ignore the practical, and indeed emotional, role that these objects played.

Cradle SD

Movement is by far the most persistent theme underlying all the work in the exhibition. Delaunay was fascinated by dance, particularly tango, and many of her works reflect the rapid movement and blurring of shapes that one expects to see in a packed dance hall. In this way, her work bears some resemblance to that of the Italian futurists, who in their obsession with the speed of modern life, painted the rapid movement of cars and people through the city as swirling blocks of colour. In her scenes of dance, ‘light and movement are confounded, [and] the planes blurred’ (Delaunay, c 1913). However, there is also a sense that these colours represent the sound of music in the dances. Bodies, dress and music are all reduced to contrasting colours on the canvas.

Simultaneous Dresses (the Three Women), 1925

Simultaneous Dresses (the Three Women), 1925

As in her paintings, movement is a central theme of her fashion designs. In 1918 she opened Casa Sonia in Madrid, a shop selling accessories, furniture and fabrics that bore her signature swirling lines and blocks of colour. In 1925 she set up her own fashion house, as well as designing costumes for ballets and cover illustrations for Vogue. In these, as in her paintings, the body is abstracted, leaving the viewer with the representation of dress in motion. The straight, 1920s silhouette lent itself well to her geometric, graphic designs and bright colours. However, it was not just her clothing that bore this aesthetic, she also designed furniture, and the interior of her Parisian home became something of a manifesto of her style, and a hub for artists and writers.

Two fashion models in Delaunay's bathing suits

Two fashion models in Delaunay’s bathing suits

Movement was also at the heart of her textile designs, so much so that, when she displayed her textiles at the 1924 Salon d’Autumne, they were presented on a ‘Vitrine Simultane.’ This vitrine, created by her husband Robert Delaunay, presented eight swaths of fabric continuously moving upwards on large rollers. Movement was quite literally injected into these otherwise static objects.

It would be easy to look at Delaunay’s textile and fashion designs as a by-product of her painting; the same circular shapes and bold colours that feature in her canvases also appear in the textiles. However, I would argue that her paintings are just as influenced by work in dress – her paintings of dance, convey the movement of dresses swirling in different directions, abstracting the body and giving the canvases their characteristic dynamism.