Conference Report: Fashion Media Yesterday Today Tomorrow

On October 21st and 22nd London College of Fashion held a two-day conference organised by Penny Martin and Dr. Djurdja Bartlett, with the aim of “bringing together the leading minds and voices in fashion research and practice to explore and debate the key issues facing fashion imagery and communications today and consider them in relation to historical and future media cultures.” The conference consisted of over two-dozen 20-minute ‘position’ papers, presented in thematic sessions, making for an informative and stimulating two days.  In her rousing introduction to the program, Penny Martin eagerly heralded the conference as a forum for “different perspectives and ideas, and multiple reactions to the concept of communications revolutions.” She also emphasized the particular aim of the conference to introduce students to the diverse types of fashion research being conducted, the resources available to support such research, and above all to inspire them to become part of the growing academic community engaged with fashion.

For the readers of Worn Through, I hope to do the same by introducing select speakers via brief synopses of the papers that most closely and clearly represented the conference’s aims and the questions at its core.  For a full listing of the papers presented visit the London College of Fashion Events page here.

Day 1 Session 01: A look at ethnicity, nationality, faith and representations of these identities in fashion media.

Dr. Valerie Steele, Chief Curator of the Museum at FIT presented a look at the making of FIT’s current exhibition Japan Fashion Now. She emphasized that planning the exhibition required the examination of a multitude of media; including music videos, film, store design, manga, streetstyle photos and blogs, as well as firsthand interviews with members of the myriad zoku, or Japanese youth style tribes.  She toured us quickly through a barrage of images and references, by the end of which, I felt equipped to distinguish between the current fairy, forest, Lolita, princess and gothic streetstyles, and inspired to book a trip to Japan!

Dr. Sarah Cheang’s paper Fashion and Ethnicity in British Vogue, was a welcome and insightful critique of fashion spreads that place Western Caucasian fashion models in foreign settings.  Looking exclusively at British Vogue, she illustrated how these images often situate the white woman as superior to the setting’s landscape, people and culture.  She criticised these images for their reinforcement and glamorisation of colonialist and racist ideologies, and called for a re-appraisal of what we accept as exotic, appropriate and fashionable.  In contrast, she cited the work of Tim Walker, and his photos taken in Papua New Guinea, (British Vogue, Aug. 2007) as being a rare example of fashion photography shot in a “foreign-exotic” locale, where the images convey a reverence and respect for the local people, customs and inherent beauty of the unfamiliar.

Tim Walker's shoot "The Ends of the Earth"

Reina Lewis presented excerpts from case studies of  how women across different religious faiths are communicating about fashion on the internet.  Her paper Modest Meditations: Faith Based Fashion and the Communication of Style, provided an enlightening look at how the internet is engendering fashion-centered dialogs amongst women from different religious and cultural backgrounds.  Central to facilitating these often unlikely avenues of communication are blogs, chat groups and online retail outlets that specialize in modest fashions.

Session 02:  A closer look at international views on fashion from within.

Dr. Djurdja Bartlett’s An Unlikely Comrade: Coco Chanel and Communist Fashion was a surprising look at how European fashion was aspired to from behind the iron curtain.  She presented a wealth of images from the East German magazine Sibylle (1964-65), in which the Chanel suit was featured as the must-have fashion for the women of the emerging socialist middle classes in their shift, “from red to beige.”

An image from Sybille magazine, late 1960s

Session 03: Gender and masculinity in fashion media

Alistair O’Neill, introduced a previously unpublished article and images by Walker Evans entitled in his paper A Curious Revolution is Taking Place in What Used to Be Called the Workman. Evans’ article, and accompanying photo essay were produced for the Great American Costume issue of Fortune Magazine in 1963, but were never published.  The documentary photos of American men’s work dress of the 1960s stand today as a pioneering, if little known, foray into sartorial matters by one of the 2oth century’s most celebrated and prolific photographers.

Nilgin Yusuf’s Caught on Camera: Unexpected Dialogues Between the Fashion Body and the Criminal Body, traced the rise of modern fashion in parallel to the rise of sensational crime journalism.  With examples such as David Bailey’s photographs of the Kray Twins, the glamorised media image of gangsters in the 1930s and the long list of celebrities whose mug shots are as iconic as their glamour portraits, she proved beyond a doubt that the criminal can be fashionable.

The Kray Twins photographed by David Bailey

Shaun Cole’s Feels Better Because it Fits Better: Advertising Underwear and Masculinity, took us back in time, to a period when downplaying male sexuality in advertising was the norm.  His research traced the conventions, techniques and slogans of male underwear advertisements that appeared in women’s magazines from the 1930s through the 1970s.  He highlighted the use of hand-drawn illustrations in such ads, and their ability to show off product features, while not drawing to much attention to a man’s inherent anatomical features.

BVD Advertisement, 1950s

Day 2  Session 01: Fashion in time-based media.

Marketa Uhlirova, curator of the upcoming BFI Fashion in Film Festival, presented The Stuff of Fashion and the Cinema Effect, resplendent with early archive film footage in which costumes are at the centre of early special effects.  She looked at how early films in particular were a platform for experimentation with costume effects, and opportunity to dazzle audiences with impossible sartorial transformations.

Tit for Tat, dir. Gaston Velle, 1906, Courtesy of Lobster Films

Session 02: The construction and deconstruction of fashion photography and styling

Magdalene Keaney, curator of The Fashion Space Gallery presented Studio: the Final Frontier, which analysed the functionality, history and mythology of the photographer’s studio.  Focusing in particular on the portrait work of Irvin Penn, and Axel Hoedt’s recent documentary portraits of German folk festival participants and their costumes, she illustrated how the studio or the concept of the studio is integral to both the photographer’s practice and identity.

Alice Beard’s Fun With Pins and Rope: How Caroline Baker Styled the Seventies, examined the work of this pioneering fashion stylist, and her eclectic, hands-on approach to fashion editing in Nova magazine.  Baker’s work came to epitomise the notion and image of the seventies as a decade when fashion was less about what you wore, and more about how you wore it.

Shoot from Nova magazine styled by Caroline Baker

Session 03: New media and fashion

Elizabeth Wissinger’s Modelling Work Within Changing Imaging Regimes, was an astute and analytical survey of changes in the ideal body of fashion models, in parallel to  changes in the very nature of modelling before and after the inception of digital media.  Her sensitive and informative study represents a new approach to deciphering our relationship with fashion’s ideals and inconstancies.

Dr. Agnes Rocamora, who is currently writing the first comprehensive study of fashion blogs presented excerpts from her research into the rise of the medium in a paper entitled, How New are New Media? The Case of Fashion Blogs. Her research is primarily concerned with independent, as opposed to commercial fashion blogs, as sources of immediate and unmediated fashion information.

Alison Clarke’s Pre-Loved Online: Fashion Brands in the Second Hand Economy, surveyed online auction websites to investigate how designer fashion is presented, merchandised and traded on the internet.  Her research also reveals changes in shopping habits heralded by the eBay phenomenon and designer fashion hire schemes and suggests that the internet may be the true site for the continuing democritization of fashion.

The conference concluded with an industry panel, chaired by Penny Martin, and consisting of Laura Bradley, editor of i-D online, Katrina Dodd, editor of Contagius FEED, and Matthew Moneypenny, CEO of Trunk Archive.

Overall, the conference provided an array of perspectives on the development of fashion media, and widened awareness of how practitioners, academics and educators may interact with it.  While much time was spent considering “new” and digital media, there was equal time given to the use of archive materials and the re-discovery of forgotten fashion information as the engine of new research.  Although there were curators on the panels, I was slightly disappointed that no mention of what the proliferation of fashion media means for the keepers of museum collections and archives.  I wondered how curators will face the challenges that the newer forms of fashion information present, and how these “materials” will be archived and presented in exhibitions.  However, for all the answers and insights that the conference served up, in the end I felt the best measure of its success was that I was left with an important question.

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  • Rebecca Evans November 11, 2010 08.51 pm

    Hi Jenna,

    Thank you for this informative post and reflections on the conference.
    The display and archiving of new fashion media is something that I have encountered curating fashion exhibitions and working in collection management in Museums.

    For example, blogging is one of the most obvious forms of new social media and fashion. But how to archive it? Print it out on paper, put the website on a CD (with the risk that the technology will become redundant in the not so distant future)? It’s a complicated topic and I would be happy to hear any suggestions or ideas in this area.

    I feel the display and presentation of these new fashion Medias is easier than long-term storage. This is especially true when I get to work with creative exhibition designers who take the challenges of an initial curatorial brief and turn it into something beautiful, engaging and interactive. We have installed screens with twitter feeds, live footage of fashion week shows and computers with online look books and fashion blogs to name a few.

    Indeed this new form of fashion media is challenging and will require much thought, planning and creativity to successfully integrate it into museums and archives. At the same time, it is also immensely exciting and exhilarating to be part of the ride.

  • liza cowan November 11, 2010 11.26 pm

    That looks like such an interesting conference. Wish I could have been there. Thanks for reporting.

  • annie nymous November 12, 2010 01.41 pm

    Will these papers be available for non-attendees to read, via jstor or some other online resource? I would love to be able to read and/or print out a copy.

  • Jenna November 15, 2010 04.16 am

    Hello and thanks for all the positive feedback and interest in this post and conference. I will keep Worn Through updated on whether the papers will be published or available on the web. Penny Martin told us there would hopefully be a publication by the university. Glad to hear from enquiring readers and please do keep your questions and feedback coming!

  • Edmund December 31, 2010 07.03 am

    Hi, thanks for the info on the conference. Am currently researching on Fashion Mediation and would like to know or ve access to materials related to this. thanks


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