Book Review: African Fashion, Global Style

african fashion

It is more often than not that African fashion—an umbrella term that cannot possibly distill the fashion endeavors of every country on this continent into two words—is talked about within the retail marketplace in terms of Western designers and companies that have their pieces made in Africa, often on an artisanal, small scale, with the aim in training men and women in sewing and manufacturing skills. Usually most if not all of the design process is done outside of the African country, and these projects can unintentionally give the impression that no such “modern” fashion infrastructure or business models exist within Africa. Victoria L. Rovine’s well-researched and page-turning study, African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, aims to seriously complicate this familiar-sounding story.

The opening up of the term of “fashion” to other cultures other than Anglo-European has steadily begun to rise since the 1980s in academic fashion studies. Rovine builds on these studies from the areas of fashion and textiles, art history, and anthropology, and eloquently and clearly argues that African fashion is innovative and dynamic. Even so-called “traditional” forms can change with personal aesthetic motivations, client preferences, and new technologies employed by a designer or maker (Rovine notes that not all in her study identify as “fashion designers”).

Rovine demonstrates through several fascinating case studies that modernity—the restless search for the new so long associated exclusively with Western culture and the colonialist mentality that indigenous cultures are unchanging in contrast—is not simply an aspirational move towards emulating the West and its products and ideals, but can be inward-looking, inspired by the multilayered histories of African countries, as well as influenced by other non-African, non-Western cultures. Fashion does not flow only one way, and it is “a key element of global visual culture” (p. 15). The reader emerges from the study with a firm understanding of how African fashion is a significant conversant in this worldwide dialogue.

Rovine recognizes the vastness of her subject matter and limits her study accordingly. She presents case studies that challenge the notion of the traditional, the modern, and the lines drawn between designers and artists, fashion and seriousness. In addition to looking at embroiderers that practice regional, very specific types of “indigenous fashion”, she explores designers and the fashion scenes in Mali, South Africa, Nigeria and beyond, and describes two types of African designers working in the global and regional fashion arena: those who directly reference the craft and construction of specific styles, histories and localities (even if those traditions are transformed and lose their original meanings), and those who take a more conceptual, less literal approach to expressing the “Africanness” of fashion. Both of these approaches can achieve regional practices with a global strategy (p. 108), and sometimes share design philosophies, such as the recycling of clothing.

This review would be too lengthy if I discussed even a portion of these case studies—they are numerous—but I will attempt to give you an idea of Rovine’s overall trajectory of themes and locations of study.

Chapter 1 is devoted to analyzing two very different types of tunics made in Mali that could initially be perceived as unchanging, “traditional” clothing–tilbis and “Ghana Boy” tunics. The “Ghana boy” is the young, ambitious, secular, brightly colored upstart to the luxury, maturity, piety, and subdued colors of the tilbi. Ghana boy tunics embody the “authenticity of the journey” (p. 41) of a young man from the rural Niger Delta region of Mali to the urban centers of the Gold Coast (Ghana) in the mid to late 20th century. One of many significant points that Rovine makes about the Ghana Boy tunics is that what may first strike one as Western emulation and aspiration (images of bell bottoms, motorcycles, platform shoes, etc.) may be based on exposure to Bollywood films and imagery, “doubly” exotic to a young Malian man—not directly experienced or seen in his country, and with origins outside of Africa or the West. In the Ghana Boy tunics, the global finds local expression.

Ghana boy tunic, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Ghana boy tunic, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Tilbis, on the other hand, are very finely made, expensive tunics created by highly skilled embroiderers that signify maturity, wealth, and local Muslim identity. Unlike the usual loud fashion fanfare of the newest, greatest thing, Rovine notes that the subtle changes taking place in tilbi embroidery patterns, inspirations and construction techniques are “fashion innovation[s] that [are] intended to be essentially invisible” (p. 64). Rovine effectively juxtaposes this first chapter with the following second, to show that the processes in the previous chapter are not the “traditional”, unchanging foil to the ever-changing, Western “modern”.

Tilbi and tilbi designs, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Tilbi and tilbi designs, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

For the second chapter, Rovine shrewdly decides that if you’re going to talk about fashion and Africa, you cannot ignore how designers from the former colonial powers have created imagined African iconography or styles in their work. She frames French fashion conceptions of Africa through the lens of the simultaneous rise of colonial expansion and the system of haute couture in the early 20th century, and colonial expositions of the 1930s. Colonial expositions—seen by the French as a domestic showcase of the colonies’ “civilizing” mission—simultaneously showed new textiles and dress for French inspiration and consumption while excluding urban African designers for more “primitive”, rural forms that conformed to the French idea of the childlike, “uncivilized” nature of Africans. This doubly assured that French designers would not be threatened by African competition for cosmopolitan designs. Throughout the 20th century, French designers such as Yves Saint-Laurent, Paul Poiret, and Jean Paul-Gaultier have created their own “invented Africas” that she points out have remained surprisingly consistent since the 1931 exposition. Decontextualized colorful beading and bold patterns, for example, remain shorthand for “Africa” in Western fashion.

Images of Nancy Cunard and Josephine Baker, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Images of Nancy Cunard and Josephine Baker, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Through the juxtaposition of these two chapters, Rovine argues that both French and African designers “sought inspiration beyond the familiar” (p. 71) and looked beyond their borders for new ideas and forms. While Western conceptions of Africa in fashion since the early 20th century can often be romanticized or grossly stereotyped, Rovine demonstrates that, at the same time, “contamination” can be a positive, two-way phenomenon that spurs on creativity and innovation (p. 26). Later on, in Chapters 4 and 5, Rovine also demonstrates how African designers can reinvent Western historical styles or remake used clothing from the West, resulting in disrupting and subverting “colonial time”—the notion that time is one-way, progressive, chronological, and ultimately controlled by exterior forces (p. 160).

Chapter 3 discusses “reinventing local forms”, and how the experience of immigration or separation from the homeland can provide inspiration and bring Africa into sharper focus for some designers.  Although these designers may work abroad or have lived abroad, they do not create an imagined Africa, but an “actual” one. Terms that resurface as inspirations include “authentic”, “heritage”, and “mythic” to name a few, but are very specific in their references to that past (p. 108).

Rovine investigates pioneers of African fashion, including Folashade (Shade) Thomas-Fahm of Nigeria, Pathé Ouédraogo of Burkino Faso, and Chris Seydou of Mali, as well as new designers such as Laduma Ngxokolo (MaXhosa by Laduma).  Ngxokolo designs knit sweaters based on those received by young Xhosa men after going through initiation into adulthood. Instead of the Scottish-made sweaters usually worn, Ngxokolo designs sweaters with local, specific designs modeled after geometric patterns and the bright colors of Xhosa beadwork. One particular sweater literally reads, “My heritage / my inheritance”, and was presented on the runway with the model holding a copy of “The Magic World of the Xhosa”, an anthropology book on the Xhosa that Ngxokolo’s mother would read to him as a child.

Man's sweater by MaXhosa by Laduma, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Man’s sweater by MaXhosa by Laduma, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Chapter 4 is dedicated to “Conceptual fashion” that creates “allusions to Africa that do not depend on recognizable stylistic references” (p. 158) and favors “production of meaning over primarily aesthetic concerns”.  Although the previous designers also allude to personal histories and making meaning, in this chapter the designer’s references are very subtle, or are not immediately apparent as “Africanisms”, and move back and forth between Africa and the West.

Designer Sakina M’sa is one of the designers that is a good example of this; her clothing is highly theoretical and embodies a multiplicity of references. While Ngxokolo proclaims his heritage and personal history clearly on the front of his sweater and through props used in a fashion show, M’sa buries her clothing in dirt to get a certain patina, (based on a personal story involving her grandmother’s advice on remaining connected to one’s homeland), or through colors or shapes that make a diverse array of references to working-class laborers in France, the body transformations of Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo, Maasai jewelry and dress, and the artist Yves Klein.

Dress by Sakina M'sa, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Dress by Sakina M’sa, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Chapter 5 focuses solely on South Africa, the country with historically the most sophisticated infrastructure for fashion.  The designers highlighted in this chapter demonstrate how the local was brought back into South African fashion (before the 1990s, the popular, mainstream fashion/retail scene largely consisted of imported European designers and “vernacular sportswear”, p. 195), and how the painful histories of apartheid and the promise of transformation can be expressed through clothing and design.  Precedents of such sartorial incisive and political practices include Nelson Mandela’s wearing of a Xhosa cloak at the trial where he was sentenced to prison (the photograph was censored for 30 years).

The South African case studies include the work of Marianne Fassler (whose career spans from the 1970s to the present), Nkhensani Manganyi Nkosi of the brand Stoned Cherrie, and Themba Mngomezulu of the controversially-named brand Darkie, which was intended to “rehabilitate the term without expunging its history, and to transform it into an expression of empowerment” (Mngomezulu later changed it to Dark Icon, which he says made the name “simpler, easier to explain”, especially to non-South Africans) (p. 200, 202).  All of these designers take very different approaches and methods to their design and presentation, including use of local isishweshwe fabric (Fassler), remaking recycled clothing (Mngomezulu), or collaborating with others in the visual and performing arts (Carlo Gibson and Ziemek Pater of Strangelove) to tell complex narratives through clothing.  

Strangelove collaboration with Nelisiwe Xaba, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Strangelove collaboration with Nelisiwe Xaba, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Rovine makes great use of several color, full-page photographs throughout the book; she immediately thanks image owners in the introduction, acknowledging that such images “enable me to tell these garments’ stories so much more vividly” (p. ix). Many these are runway images, which also conveys the dynamism and the high visibility of the clothing, seen through the dominant and iconic mode of fashion presentation and image dissemination worldwide (Rovine also points out the fashion show’s great narrative potential).

On the cover are designer Maimouna Diallo’s boubous (floor-length, dramatic tunics). She is particularly concerned with copying, and usually does not like her work to be photographed. The image is slightly blurred—the models are in motion on a catwalk–and the designs cannot be clearly seen. Personally I would like to have seen more discussion on the notion of copying and replication and its possible outcomes.  After all, the subtitle of the book “ideas you can wear” comes from a tailor’s shop sign in Accra. Copying and worldwide dissemination of designer fashions–for better or worse–is such a huge part of the global fashion market today and is one of the ways that everyone can participate in the latest designer fashions if they so choose. How is this taking place locally and regionally across Africa? What are the benefits for consumers, who can reproduce desired designs on a small scale at a tailor as opposed to consuming mass manufactured goods? What are the detriments for designers and regional industries?  Does local copying hurt or affect their profits or make their designs less desirable to their clientele?

The study concludes with a brief analysis of African fashion magazines with local, regional, and international reach, as well as a discussion of the cultural and political complexities surrounding fashion shows and fashion events.  Rovine here also raises the question of challenges for designers who receive international media attention but are limited to the label of “African designer”.  Several designers expressed frustration with this strict categorization; Stoned Cherrie was even dropped by a South African fashion retailer because its designs were perceived as being “too African” (p. 228-233).   Rovine leaves readers with the important question, “who decides”…”What makes fashion African”? (p. 230).

Despite the layered complexities of her subject, Rovine’s analysis is sophisticated and clear, never convoluted.  Much of Rovine’s study comes out of individual face-to-face interviews with designers within the last 5-10 years, so much of the content is fresh and unique.  This book would be a great introduction to those not at all familiar with African fashion, as well as an excellent read for those already well-versed in Africa’s creative fashion output.

Images provided by the author of this post.

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Domestic Affairs: Woven Luxuries

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Something I’ve learned about fashion and textile exhibitions is that size really, truly doesn’t matter. It is generally the big exhibitions — the Met’s annual gala and accompanying show, the de Young’s Balenciaga exhibition, etc. — that get the press, but I have found it is the smaller, more intimate shows that tend to stay with me and which can genuinely surprise me. Such is the case with the Asian Art Museum‘s Woven Luxuries.

As I said in my last post, Woven Luxuries is a small exhibition of only ten pieces from the Indictor Collection in New York and many of those are mere fragments. I was tempted to put quotations around “mere” in that last sentence because what the Asian does in this exhibition is prove that in the right hands, even the smallest fragment of textile can shine. I have see this done before, such as my favorite piece in the de Young’s From the Exotic to the Mystical. But unlike that exhibition, which had over 40 objects many of which were intact, Woven Luxuries is built on ten fragments and it uses them to tell the story of silk velvets in India, Persia, and Turkey and their roles in their respective cultures and empires. No small feat for ten pieces of fabric, but one which they perform masterfully.

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At first glance, Woven Luxuries was set up in a similar manner to LACMA’s Art Deco Textiles, though this perception is quickly challenged by the exhibition itself. Opening with the map and wall text you see in the opening image, the Asian sets the ground work for what we will be examining, the collection from which these textiles come, and how important velvets were in Indian, Persian, and Turkish society beginning in the sixteenth century. The exhibition space is dark and cool, as is fitting for displaying delicate, historic textiles. But this darkness also increases the feeling of intimacy, quiet, and contemplativeness that pervades the show.

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There is one bench in the room, in front of a video display that plays on a loop. There is no sound, only subtitles against a background of paintings and other artwork from the focus countries which you realize as the video progresses, and zooms in and out on particular details of these paintings, feature the very textiles you are about to examine. The video is slow, but not to the point of becoming aggravating. Instead, this deliberate pace rather cleverly sets the pace for the entire exhibition. Having driven through the insanity that is San Francisco’s Bay-to-Breakers marathon traffic to get to the exhibition, this deliberate, quiet pace was an intense relief — an oasis, if you will, before I had to venture out again.

The video also communicated succinctly the place these textiles held in Turkish, Persian, and Indian court life. Used as tents in a time before hotels when travelling from one court to another, their designs often mimicked the architecture of the various palaces and temples. They were also an indicator of status — though not necessarily wealth — since they were given by the emperor/king/maharaja (depending on which country and which area of that country they were in) to those he felt had done him great, and often personal service.

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The next large text panel explained in detail how these luxurious fabrics were made. The weaving process was very precisely outlined, and yet the panel had less text on it than the opening map.  It was startling to think of these amazing, luxurous textiles — all of which were made of silk if not in their entirety, at least in some part — being laid on the ground and used as tents. And as you moved through the exhibition, the tombstones continued this theme of being succinct, but informative — using the individual textiles to further the story of velvets in these three countries, and to underscore points that had already been made.

Another wonderful aspect were the magnifying glasses positioned strategically throughout the exhibition (you can see them above). Having just read such a marvelous description of the weaving process, it was wonderful to be able to see elements of that process (the cut silk threads that created the plush, the interweaving of brocade and velvet, etc.) up close without worrying that I would damage the textile or bring down the wrath of a gallery attendant for getting too close. And as you can see from my photographs of details below, it was definitely worth getting up close and personal with these textiles.

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The exhibition grouped the textiles by region as well, which was fascinating because you could track the influence the three cultures had on each other through trade and diplomatic contact (those travelling tents I mentioned earlier). Since I did my master’s thesis on India’s influence on Britain, I focused very heavily on the textiles of India before I could look at its influence on British dress and textiles.. And naturally, the interplay and exchange of aesthetics are of great interest to me. Being able to track the evolution of the boteh (flower), or paisley, from something asked for by European traders into something that was distinctly Indian, Turkish, or Persian into what we now think of as the boteh, or paisley teardrop was genuinely fascinating. Especially since I was looking at three distinct evolutions. It also explains why almost all of my close-ups are of flower motifs. I try to keep my personal research interests in check at exhibitions, but sometimes I don’t notice until I look back at my photos that I didn’t entirely succeed.

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The tombstones were genuinely informative. They would tell you not only about the particular textile, it’s origin, what it was originally a part of and used for, and the tombstone would invariably find a way to add to the story of velvets in Indian, Persian, and Turkish culture, their relationship with Europe, or the place textiles held in art and material culture of the time period. You can see in the following photos that they often included photos either of paintings that featured the type of textile — as the video did — which importantly shows the culture’s perception of the textile to go with the research the museum has done. Or it might show a similar, intact textile so you could imagine what the piece you are looking at must have looked like when it was “whole.” But my favorites were those which included photos of architectural details with similar designs, so you could compare the design elements, or those like the one below which explained why we might be looking at fragments. It wasn’t because the textiles weren’t valued, but precisely because they were that people tried to preserve as much of these fabrics as they could as the normal wear and tear of time (and being laid on the ground as tent material) took hold.

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The photo above shows my absolute favorite part of the exhibition. And in an exhibit I loved as much as this one — that is definitely saying something. To the right of the last textile displayed on the walls of the room, there is an eleventh textile, contemporary in creation, but made in the traditional way. Next to it are visual demonstrations of how textiles in general are woven, and how velvet is woven by comparison.

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Even more divine? The sample textiles you COULD TOUCH below these displays! After wall text and video captions and tombstones describing centuries of artistic luxury, I confess I desperately wanted to find someone at the museum and say “look I’m one of you! If I promise to wash my hands, can I please touch the pretty?” Except, I didn’t have to. The museum provided samples. Something that I feel many textile exhibitions should include, because they are just so tactile.

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The exhibition, while wonderful, was not perfect. Admittedly nothing is — and this one came very close — but there were a couple things that were disappointing. The first were the fantastic quotes about textiles, which you couldn’t quite read. They were color on color, in low light, high up above the textiles in full light, in a dark room. It genuinely became too much effort to read them all, having to duck and shuffle back and forth to try and get enough shadows that you could read them. They would have been much better placed lower, so they would be more easily read.

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The other critique I would make would be that there was one aspect of the story that was not discussed: the weavers themselves. My area of focus is predominantly Kashmir shawls, and I am fully aware of the rather atrocious conditions the weavers lived under during the “golden age” of the shawl in European fashion. I would have loved to know about the weavers of these beautiful velvets, rather than just about their “consumers,” if you will.

However, these two disappointments did not in any way detract from my admiration of this exhibition. Woven Luxuries is beautiful, provided such a wealth of information and it did so in the best way possible: it let the textiles speak for themselves. It is definitely worth a visit if you will be in San Francisco any time soon.

Woven Luxuries is on display until November 1, 2015.

Have you seen Woven Luxuries? What did you think? Are there any small, intimate exhibitions that have stayed with you for weeks afterwards? What were they, and why did they linger? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. And if there are any exhibitions or events that you feel Worn Through readers should know about, please mention them below or feel free to email me the details and I will put them in my next column!

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Kōrero Kākahu: Air New Zealand at Te Papa

The national museum, Te Papa is having a bumper year with a succession of incredibly successful exhibitions, two of which are still on show. Alongside the blockbuster that is Gallipoli – The Scale of Our War (which provides an opportunity for commemorating the centenary of the Anzac experience) is Air New Zealand 75 Years: Our nation. The world. Connected. Quite a convoluted name for an exhibition that I find to be one of the sleekest I have seen of late at Te Papa. This exhibition begins inside (I say inside as the nose of an airplane is outside the museum for visitors to take their photo inside) with a lit runway guiding visitors along a pathway to the site of the former Eyelights Gallery. Eyelights was the museum’s dedicated space for exhibitions of a textile/costume/clothing nature but has been under threat through the last couple of restructures and doesn’t appear to be entirely out of the woods. Te Papa’s recently appointed Chief Executive, Rick Ellis, cut his chops working in digital media for Australian telco Telstra and the state-owned broadcaster Television New Zealand. Ellis has come in to this position with his completely unabashed dedication to all things digital and I bring this up as, since his appointment in November 2014, it has been announced that all long-term exhibitions will be redeveloped at the cost of short-term exhibitions going ahead. What this means for a space like Eyelights that had continuous short-term exhibitions featuring clothing from the museum’s collection as well as touring exhibitions, only time will tell. What space will clothing now inhibit in the museum? How will the textiles collection continue to inform researchers and visitors alike about New Zealand history?

Exhibition entry

Exhibition entry

Back to Air NZ. The exhibition opens with a trip back in time through the past iterations of flight attendant uniforms. For the life of me I can’t understand why the uniforms are shown going back through time, as a visitor I much prefer the evolution of a story. Watching a story grow makes more sense to me, especially in this instance with a recurring theme of the exhibition being that as the airline expands, the identity it takes on is unapologetically New Zealand. As I say, the exhibition starts with a case featuring the current uniforms made by New Zealand designer Trelise Cooper and the immediate predecessors by Zambesi. Cooper’s designs reflect a functionality that should be a prerequisite of such work (as we will see, this hasn’t always been the case) and she utilised different colours to differentiate between ground staff and cabin crew. Female flight attendants were given dresses in a “twilight pink” with patterns in black that feature motifs that recall New Zealand culture e.g. the koru (this is a Māori word given to an unfurled fern frond and symbolises life) of the Air NZ logo. The male flight attendants were not so lucky, though the exhibition labels state that their uniform finally eschewed the “sober suits of the past with its lively patterns and pops of colour”, it is quite a ghastly rendering of Kiwiana kitsch. However, as functionality has increased over the years with these uniforms, so too has versatility and the males are able to pair the unfortunate waistcoat with a tie (twilight pink being an option) and a choice of either a tūī (native bird) tiepin or a Rangitoto Island tiepin. Again, the reinforcement of nationhood is inescapable.

Female flight attendant uniform

Female flight attendant uniform

Male flight attendant uniform

Male flight attendant uniform

Choice of tie and tiepins

Choice of tie and tiepins

The other outfit in this case was designed by Zambesi, one of New Zealand’s highest exporting designers and a pioneer of New Zealand fashion’s obsession with black. Their uniform however was not very well-received, with staff and customers finding the colour scheme of (here we go again with the nationhood theme) teal, pounamu (greenstone) and schist to blend into plane interiors posing too much of a safety hazard. Also, it is very bland. It did however, feature a merino (famous New Zealand wool export) wrap with a design by Māori artist Derek Lardelli reminiscent of an earlier uniform’s use of Māori motifs.

Female flight attendant uniform by Zambesi and merino wrap featuring illustration from Māori artist Derek Lardelli.

Female flight attendant uniform by Zambesi and merino wrap featuring illustration from Māori artist Derek Lardelli.

The case after this showed another New Zealand design from 1987 by Isabel Harris of Thornton Hall. This time the functionality of the garment came from consultation with crew members advising the designer, who in turn incorporated an elasticated waist and neckline that could be worn buttoned up or down.

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1987 design by Isabel Harris of Thornton Hall

Beside the Harris’ businesslike look is the 1976 design from Parisian designer Nina Ricci. It was quite a surprise to see that an international designer of such repute had designed for Air NZ, but she wasn’t the first (again, why did this exhibition not show in chronological order?). The design again drew cues from nature with it’s wavy blues and greens but, it did not skimp on functionality with the dress being made of hard-wearing polyester. It is interesting to note how these hues would be repeated to much less acclaim by a New Zealand designer almost 30 years later.

1976 design from Nina Ricci

1976 design from Nina Ricci

The next case (undoubtedly my favourite of the lot) highlights why the chronology of exhibition is an issue for me with the wall text saying of the National Airway Corporation and Air New Zealand’s uniforms: “This was the last time the styles would diverge. By the end of the decade, they had merged into one corporation.” This text sets you up for things to come, how will the new corporation’s uniforms reflect this merger? But instead of weaving together these stories as you go along, you have to awkwardly unpick them and remember which thread belongs where. Unfortunately, this is not the only time this happens during the exhibition either.

1976 National Airways Corporation uniform

1976 National Airways Corporation uniform

Glorious. At first glance I thought this was a jumpsuit but wasn’t too disappointed to discover that it is instead a blouse, vest and trousers made by Holeproof New Zealand. The trousers, resplendent in their 1970′s glory, were the first time that the corporation had made trousers for female staff. This is also the first time that see we a uniform utilising such a bold colour scheme with its use of primary block colours of a less natural shade. After NAC merged with Air NZ, the scarf was replaced with a similar one bearing the koru from the Air NZ logo, marketing through identity was, and still is, an important tactic for this airline.

Also in this case is a design from a Croation-born New Zealander, Vinka Lucas whose design was also made by Holeproof NZ. Lucas’ main trade was in evening and bridal gowns and her design reflected this in the blouse design on show, with it’s billowy sleeves and the tiny back buttons which the flight attendants needed help in doing up. This design shows the first time that Air NZ consciously decided to highlight it’s New Zealand-ness through the inclusion of what the text label refers to as “Māori motif”. Though delicately beautiful and reminiscent of the Lardelli illustration of 2005, I struggled to see what was particularly Māori about the design, I guess that’s what the ‘motif’ is for, a disclaimer for authenticity.

Vinka Lucas' design

Vinka Lucas’ design

The last design in this case is the most exciting of the whole exhibition and caused the largest reaction each time I saw the exhibition. From 1970, this NAC incorporated arguably the shortest hemline in the history of Air NZ uniforms. Rendered in bright colours, these outfits were show-stopping and quickly earned the nickame of ‘jellybean’ or ‘lollipop’. This was another instance where uniform was used as a marketing ploy to showcase how young and funky the airline was in a bid to attract young customers, however, functionality was sacrificed as the wall text stated that reaching into overhead lockers was an ordeal.

NAC's lollipop stewardess

NAC’s lollipop stewardess

Going from these colourful and quirky ensembles to the more demure and classic lines of the 1960′s was like drinking a tall glass of water after a few too many cocktails. The 1960s saw more people with more money taking to the skies and the airlines emulated this sense of luxury with rich designs in expensive fabrics with NAC featuring its first New Zealand designer, Babs Radon, and Air NZ (or as it was previously known, TEAL, again, you have to read the labels backwards to make sense of the name change) employing Christian Dior. These designs proved popular with staff as they were comfortable and sophisticated, I’m sure being able to wear Christian Dior to work will have helped with the popularity!

Babs Radon's 1966 design, the hat was dubbed the "mustard pot"

Babs Radon’s 1966 design, the hat was dubbed the “mustard pot”

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Christian Dior’s 1969 design featuring a hibiscus flower on the sleeves to call back to our Pacific identity

The first uniforms for the airline reflected the post-war need for safety and security, the dresses were military in form and the rules around cosmetic embellishment were military in nature. This uniform played up its military symbolism and as many flight attendants were trained as nurses, they were encouraged to wear their badges. Despite how functional it looked, the white linen could not remain crisp for a long-haul international flight and quickly sagged and got dirty.

Post-war uniform reminiscent of nursing

Post-war uniform reminiscent of nursing

Opposite the wall of cases is a wall of historic photographs featuring staff members wearing each of the uniforms. In the middle of each of these walls is a video wherein an actor, wearing a uniform from the display, has a mini monologue about what it is like to work for Air NZ. I’m not sure what these videos add to the exhibition. Being no fan of falsely constructed history, it was hard to tell whether the stories these actors were telling visitors were real stories and if they were, why didn’t they have actual former employees holding their uniforms and telling stories? The lack of authenticity in these videos I found quite annoying, I don’t think it adds anything to the story of the clothing. The most striking aspect I found that put some life into these uniforms (apart from the parts of the labels that included quotes from former staff) was seeing the name badge of a former worker. It was much easier to imagine someone walking to work through an 1970 airport just by seeing the evidence that she had been there. Sometimes it is the simple objects that can tell a complex story so much more succinctly.

An actor in uniform

An actor in uniform

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Name badge on the Dior uniform, the name can’t quite be made out

The sleekness of the exhibition’s design is echoed throughout with the clever use of the airline’s own typeface in the signage. Clever marketing isn’t new to the airline, they have utilised it throughout their history as is seen with the inclusion of many of the airline’s past travel bags in the exhibition. These show how the logo has changed throughout the airline’s history and the way in which they aid in promoting the airline with the pink travel bag below. This bag was a giveaway in a specially chartered flight taking passengers to the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney one year and was a part of a full spectacular that featured drag performances, themed drinks and a cabaret by crew members. This particular pink bag was given to the Māori performer Mika.

Air NZ travel bag from 1965 - 73

Air NZ travel bag from 1965 – 73

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Teal travel bag 1961

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Air NZ travel bag with the current koru logo, from c.1986

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Themed bag from 2008

The final aspect of the exhibition that I want to cover is part of the interactive space at the end. Here there are shrunken reproductions of crew uniforms for children to wear and have their photos taken in. When I first attended the exhibition, there was a constant stream of kids playing mini pilot or mini flight attendant. The second time round the mini flight attendants were happy to walk around as if they were staff! I have seen dress-ups used in exhibitions before as a way to entice children in but often they were second-hand jackets that were adult size, having them the kids’ size made the imaginative play much more believable and I would say, much more successful.

Mini crew hats and pilot jacket

Mini crew hats and pilot jacket

I have mentioned how I think Air NZ is savvy and clever with their marketing through the continued use and promotion of their brand and I must say, the most savvy and clever marketing campaign of all has to be this exhibition. Starting with the staff clothing really set the scene for visitors to be able to imagine themselves as either a staff member or a customer and this is continued throughout the exhibition. To then bookend it with children being able to play with the uniforms was a great move and reminded you that this is a fun and luxurious airline. Not to mention the national carrier.

Air New Zealand 75 Years: Our nation. The world. Connected. is free entry and on at Te Papa until July 26th.

A note on my column title: Kōrero Kākahu translates very literally from Māori to English as “talk of clothing” but can also be read as the stories gleaned from clothing or the stories that clothing holds. Future columns, particularly those that cover Māori content, may delve into this meaning a little deeper.

All photos by me.

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CFP: Making Trans/national Contemporary Design History

Making Trans/national Contemporary Design History
ICDHS 2016 Taipei | The 10th International Conference on Design History and Design Studies (ICDHS), Taipei, Taiwan, October 26-28, 2016, hosted by the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology.

Abstract due: July 20, 2015

We are pleased to announce the Call for Papers for ICDHS 2016 Taipei, The 10th International Conference on Design History and Design Studies.

Taipei – the ‘World Design Capital of 2016’ welcomes proposals for the ICDHS 2016 Taipei to share this historical moment and think critically about design in the global context. This fast moving, culturally complex city is an ideal place for debat-ing and making a trans/national contemporary design history – an aim that has been part of the ICDHS’s goal of inclusive and far-reaching design history and design studies. In producing innovative design while leading the postcolonial debate on transnational identities and practicing democratic activism, Taiwan and its geo-cultural location offers a compelling conference platform.

We are seeking proposals for the following eight strands that will cover a wide range of themes including local level issues specific to East Asia and inter-Asian connections. Furthermore, topics that have been developed through previous ICDHS conferences (http://www.ub.edu/gracmon/icdhs/), and the undiscovered, newly emerging ideas in the field of design history and design studies will also be considered for inclusion. The overarching aim of this conference is to explore different possibilities of engagement that advance ‘global’, ‘world’ and ‘transnational’ design histories and studies. The eight strands are:

1. Inter-Asia and design historical issues in Asia
2. Trans/national design theory and identity
3. Science, technology and sustainability
4. Craft, material culture and cultural industry
5. Design policies, pedagogies and creative economy
6. Contemporary design practice
7. Activism, democracy and design interventions
8. Open strand

Proposals for individual 20-minute papers, or for panels organized around a common theme, and/or poster presentations should use the form provided from the conference website: http://www.dt.ntust.edu.tw/icdhs2016/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/icdhs2016_taipei_proposal_form.pdf. Upon completion, please upload and submit the form to https://easychair.org/conferences/?cof=icdhs2016taipei.

Proposal submissions must be in English, and should include the following:
• An abstract not exceeding 300 words
• Indication of strand and participation type
• 5 keywords

The official language of the conference is English and Chinese. Submissions of full papers or posters in either English or Traditional Chinese are open to the choice of authors. Full paper and panel presentations in the conference could be conducted in either English or Mandarin Chinese.

All submissions will go through an anonymous, double-blind review process. The deadline for proposal submissions is July 20, 2015. Applicants will be advised whether their proposals have been successful by early October 2015, and for successful proposals an invitation for submission of the full paper or poster presentation will follow. Full papers in English should not exceed 3,000 words, while full papers in Traditional Chinese should not exceed 6,000 characters. Poster presentations in English should not exceed 1,500 words, and those in Traditional Chinese should not exceed 3,000 characters. 

For all conference participants, proceedings will be available in digital format, and online for long-term dissemination. Print format will be available as an option with a small charge to cover basic printing cost. With authors’ agreement, selected papers will be published in a thematically formed volume by the one of the official conference journals: International Journal of Design, or Sheji Xuebao 設計學報 (Journal of Design), the two Taipei-based academic journals.

For further information, please refer to the conference website: http://www.dt.ntust.edu.tw/icdhs2016/
Any queries should be addressed to this email: icdhs2016taipei@easychair.org

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You Should Be Watching: Dress and Textile Conservation

For many students, conservation coursework is the most challenging part of a program in historic costume and textiles, but also the most practical and immediately applicable. This work requires research, great attention to detail, patience and caution, and skilled stitches. Below are four fascinating videos detailing the process of conservation projects at museums preparing for fashion and textile exhibitions. The first two are recent videos from the Museum at FIT, the third an interview with the Royal BC Museum textile conservator, and the fourth an overview of tapestry conservation at the National Trust Textile Conservation Studio.

Nicole Bloomfield, conservation technologist at The Museum at FIT, explains how the museum acquired a 1917 coat by fashion designer Paul Poiret and describes the conservation treatment she performed so that it could go on display in the exhibition Faking It: Originals, Copies, and Counterfeits, on view December 2, 2014 – April 25, 2015. – Full video description

Marjorie Jonas, assistant conservator at The Museum at FIT, explains her conservation treatment of a 1928 silk dress by designer Jeanne Lanvin so that it could go on display in the exhibition Faking It: Faking It: Originals, Copies, and Counterfeits, on view December 2, 2014 – April 25, 2015. – Full video description

Textile Conservator Colleen Wilson discusses the labour-intensive process of conserving a silk taffeta dress from the period of the 1858 Gold Rush. This beautiful piece is featured in the Royal BC Museum’s Gold Rush! El Dorado in BC exhibition, May 13 – Oct 31, 2015. – Full video description

Ksynia Marko, head of the National Trust Textile Conservation Studio takes us through some of the processes involved in conserving tapestries. – Full video description

Watch part 2 and part 3

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“This teacher talked about ethics. You’ll never believe what happened next.”

“This is a new generation,” my colleague told me, after I recounted a recent class scenario to her, because I was so surprised about the opinions and attitudes which emerged during a class discussion on a popular fashion brand.

Is this generation gap really true? We are only one generation or about 12 years apart, but the gap seems quite prominent. I would be generation X, whilst my students are Y, some young ones even Millenials. However, just like in this picture, it seems that the outlook on life can be as opposing as black and white.

Gen_X_Y

Image source here.

The said fashion brand which we looked at in class is large American-based clothing retailer who has often generated negative press. This is because the clothes were intentionally limited in size, occasionally featured racist T-shirt prints and were marketed to teens in an obviously sexualized manner (through advertising, TV commercials and half-clothed sales assistants).

ABERCROMBIE FITCH KOH LEE

Image source and news article here.

Furthermore, the long-standing CEO who suddenly left at the end of last year explicitly said that he was only interested in marketing to cool kids. So for the background information, the students looked at the brand’s visual marketing material, read the negative press articles and watched the marketing expert Jonathan Gabay talk about a recent issue where an applicant was denied a job due to wearing a headscarf to the interview.

Jonathan Gabay on BBC World News speaking on Hijab hiring scandal

Because this particular class deals with fashion advertising, I also engage the students in a discussion about ethics of advertising and marketing. My goal was not to blame the brand, but to look at its negative media coverage and think about possible new rebranding strategies, now that the visionary CEO had left. (At the end of the class, the students were given a project where they’d be inventing a new and more ethical advertising strategy for this brand.) My hope, as a teacher, was to inspire a constructive discussion and new ideas.

But here is where is turned strange. As one of those recently popular Facebook posts would say: “This teacher talked about ethics. You’ll never believe what happened next.”

urlraising hands

Image source here.

My usually timid students raised their hands and informed me that this brand’s attitude was absolutely fine with them. Joking about certain ethnicities and races is fine, too, said one student of a mixed-race ethnic background. Selling clothes in a sexual context is what young people want, said another. And discrimination? Well if you wear a head-scarf to a job interview and then don’t get the job, it’s your own fault, they said. If you don’t like the brand’s marketing you can always choose to shop (or work) somewhere else. However, the students were sure that the brand was popular for a reason, so they must have been doing something right. Or else, why would dozens of teenagers be lining the streets during a shop opening?

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Image source and article here.

When I tried to explain that there are other people on this planet (one classroom of youths in southern Germany is not representative of all global opinions) who felt differently about the specific incidents, the generation gap opened gaping wide. My plea for ethical awareness and political correctness, respect for other ethnicities or religions was met with more raised arms, all ready to contradict me. Finally, a student summarized: “It’s great that you brought up this case study, because now you know that we think differently!”

So here are my questions to you, who teach, and to myself, because I have not answered them properly yet:

- How do you deal with contradicting or controversial opinions in class?

- What was your experience with the generation gap and the shift of ethical values?

- How do you stay true to your beliefs and remain a positive role model in the position as a teacher, when students are clearly not accepting your guidance?

I would love to hear your views on this, as I am still trying to figure out the answers myself. One thing I did realize however: You can never tell in advance how a lecture will go and how students will react.

 

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Under the London Fashion Umbrella: Scandalous Swimsuits of 1898!

Since I can’t be alone in dreaming of swimsuit weather (even here in California, it’s still too chilly!), and am still covering for Emma, I’ve decided to share this wonderful 1898 video from the British Pathé archives. It features several dancers who scandalized the Brighton Council with their “wanton” display of “flesh” in these glorious 1898 swimsuits. We can live vicariously through them in their warmer weather and laugh at far we’ve come (and haven’t!) in regards to modesty, fashion, and the human body.

Emma will be back in June!

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You Should Be Reading: Frida Kahlo and Mexican Fashion

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1. Bradley, Laura. ‘The Secret Possessions of Frida Kahlo.’ AnOther. 5 May 2015.

In 2011, Ishiuchi Miyako was given a unique opportunity to photograph Frida Kahlo’s wardobe and personal objects, at Kahlo’s Blue House in Mexico City. It would be the first time her subject matter had not derived from Japan. She travelled to Mexico City, a frenetic, bustling contrast to her ordered homeland, and began to photograph over 300 of the well-preserved objects at the Blue House, the place where Kahlo was born, worked and died. The wardrobe was only discovered in 2004, having been hidden in a tiny, spare bathroom under the instruction of her husband Diego Rivera. – Article excerpt

Fridaan exhibition of Miyako’s photographs, is on at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London from May 14-July 12, 2015.

2. Aragon, Alba F. ‘Uninhabited Dresses: Frida Kahlo, from Icon of Mexico to Fashion Muse.’ Fashion Theory 18(5), November 2014. 517-549.

This article examines the shifting meanings of Frida Kahlo’s figure and the Tehuana ethnic dress known as her trademark look. It analyzes Appearances Can Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo, the first exhibit of the artist’s recently recovered wardrobe on view at the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City from 2012‐14. Engaging the exhibit’s suggestion that the artist casts a “spectral” image over contemporary fashion, this article inquires about the ways history inscribes itself on fashion despite its pretensions of constant innovation. The exhibit is examined in dialogue with Frida Kahlo’s My Dress Hangs There (1933), an image that reflects on modernity and national identity through the tension between competing visions of femininity and fashion represented by Mae West and a disembodied Tehuana dress. – Full article abstract

3. Rosensweig, Denise and Magdalena Rosensweig. Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress: The Fashion of Frida Kahlo. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2008.

Frida Kahlo remains one of the most popular artists of our timesales of Frida books number into the hundreds ofthousandsand yet no volume has ever focused on one of the most memorable aspects of her persona and creativeoeuvre: her wardrobe. Now, for the first time, 95 original and beautifully staged photographs of Kahlo’s newly restored clothing are paired with historic photos of the artist wearing them and her paintings in which the garments appear. Frida’s life and style were an integral part of her art, and she is long overdue for recognition as a fashion icon. – Publisher’s summary

Click here to read past contributor Heather’s review of Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress in 2008.

Click here to read UK contributor Emma’s review of last year’s exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum, Made in Mexico: The Rebozo in Art, Culture and Fashion.

Image credit: Frida by Ishiuchi, #34, via AnOther

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CFP: Critical Studies in Men’s Fashion Special Issue

Critical Studies in Men’s Fashion call for papers 

Special Issue: ‘Exhibiting Masculinity’ 

Deadline to submit is: February 1, 2016

The early twenty-first century has witnessed a relative spark, if not an explosion, of museum projects devoted solely or predominantly to the subject of men’s fashion, and has coincided with new emphasis on questioning and examining forms of dressed and embodied masculinity; see for example Vol. 2 No. 1 of Critical Studies in Men’s Fashion, March 2015.

In this special issue of Critical Studies in Men’s Fashion we are interested in critical intersections between museology, masculinity and fashion. Intellect Books invites submissions on topics including but not limited to the following:

• Museum exhibitions of men’s fashion
• Museum collections of men’s fashion
• Examination of respective issues in developing collections and /or exhibitions of women’s versus men’s fashion
• Masculinity as a subject of museum inquiry
• Problems and practices in exhibiting men’s fashion in the museum
• Audience engagement with museums and masculinity
• Conservation issues around men’s dress

All submissions must follow Intellect’s house style for review. Manuscripts should be approximately 5000-7000 words and use British spelling. It is the author’s responsibility to clear image rights usage if they are included in the manuscript. Please send submissions and queries to the guest editors Sally Gray (sallysuzettegray@gmail.com) or Roger Leong at (Roger.Leong@maas.museum).

See the full call for more information.

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On Teaching Fashion: The importance of doing things for yourself.

When I began my teaching career I spent so much time putting all my energy into work, taking marking home every night and spending free periods helping and developing students and their projects. This is all very important yes, as teaching a hard job but also very fulfilling. However, when I went on University open days, tours and workshops with my classes I felt suddenly envious for all the wonderful creative opportunities the students had. This was the first period in my life where I was being very creative and developing ideas with my students which I do love, but doing nothing for myself. Each year I see students off for their big adventures in higher education which is one of the more fulfilling factors about my job, helping students take this next step in life, and this year the first cohort I ever taught will graduate University.

Have you ever had periods in your career like this? How important is it for you as a creative teacher to continue your own professional practice?

I think it is crucial as a creative lecturer to have projects and opportunities to nurture your own development, whether this be going to exhibitions, seeing shows or going to conferences and talks on creative topics. I find this keeps my brain thinking! Recently I went to see the Sonia Delaunay exhibition at Tate Modern. This was really inspiring with the vibrant colours and shapes which she painted in an abstract nature. Yes this does make you think ‘it would be great for a project at work’ but it is refreshing to read about others thought process and see first-hand the pieces of art. I left feeling inspired.

Currently I have many other projects under my belt I am progressing to enrich my own creativity. As yes I really enjoy teaching and working with the students but there are many other pressures in working in education. I have begun to teach within adult education on interest courses, which I find totally different and very enjoyable. The dialogue also with learners who come to these sessions adds to the enjoyment, hearing about their individual aims and what they want to achieve.

Finally I am beginning to expand my research portfolio from an academic angle. Daring to send abstracts off to conferences I have managed to gain a place presenting a poster at The University of York, and to present at paper at The University of Oxford. And of course also the brilliant opportunity of writing here as part of the Worn through community. I discuss my additional activities with my students at work, who mainly are really interested in what I am doing and the experiences I have had in my career and previous training at University myself. I hope by doing these for myself it enriches my outlook in my current position and I can guide my students to a higher level and relay all of my experiences as these are opportunities they may wish to progress their careers on to. How do you find juggling your creative and academic careers? Do your students ask you about creative projects your are involved with? 

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