Conference Report: Fashion in Translation

Early this month, I went to my first conference here in Stockholm. Although I am now confident in Swedish, I was glad to learn that most of the faculty at the Centre for Fashion Studies at Stockholm University hail from countries worldwide, and thus English is the diplomatic language for most of the Centre’s courses and events.

In light of this international faculty and student body, it was appropriate that this year’s conference was: Fashion in Translation. The idea of openness and accessibility was evident in the lack of entry fee and choice of venue, the community center ABF House on Sveavägen in Central Stockholm, to encourage a wider audience for this international conference.

Despite the use of English, conference organizers Peter McNeil and Dr. Louise Wallenberg sought to challenge the “Anglophone dominance of fashion scholarship” through the inclusion of geographic areas less often seen in the field. Each speaker took a different and complex angle on the idea of “translation”, working toward answering the directors’ question: Is fashion truly global?

Not apparently seeking a definitive answer, the topics presented demonstrated instead the need for broadening discourse across media, cultures and geographies.

"Portrait of Countess Livia da Porto Thiene and her Daughter Portia", c. 1551, Paolo Veronese. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Used by Professor Welch in her presentation.

Professor Evelyn Welch, of Queen Mary University of London, presented her research on “holding things in Early Modern hands”, an exploration of zibellini and feathered or folded fans in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European portraiture. Although the emphasis was on the pictorial portrayal of these objects, I was galvanized by her concentration on the action of holdinginstead of simply the objects themselves–and the significance this held with regards to gendered rights and ownership in this period. Here, translation is not only from 2D representation to imagining the reality of 3D objects and practices, but also from natural world to cultural construct, and is used as a warning against modern interpretations of early modern portraiture.

I first saw the next speaker, Dr. Djurdja Bartlett of the London College of Fashion, when she presented her book, Fashion East, at FIT last February (reviewed on WT). Here in Stockholm, she spoke about her current work on the Russian fashion legacy, “Russian Sartorial Heritage in Translation and Auto-Translation.” Dr. Bartlett explored a triad of issues surrounding the use of what are seen as “traditional” Russian patterns and dress.

Fancy Dress Costume, 1911, Paul Poiret. A classic example of Poiret's fluid use of "the Orient" in his designs. From the Costume Institute at the Met.

First, Western designers from Poiret to Gucci and Chanel to Lagerfeld have romanticized “vernacular and primitive” Russian themes in a search for “authentic culture“. Secondly, newly (incredibly) wealthy Russian consumers “return the gaze”, buying into Western styles and fetishizing local dress–but only through “high fashion-ethnic” Western interpretations. The third group are young Russian designers such as Denis Simachev, Alena Akhmadullina and Igor Chapurin, who use national heritage and nostalgia as well as a personal experience of the West to “translate” Russian tradition in ironic, mocking, exaggerated ways. Dr. Bartlett creates strong vocabularies in her work, with which she elaborates on the discussion of East-West appropriation.

Ready-to-Wear from Denis Simachev, Fall 2009, shown by Dr. Bartlett in her presentation. Soviet themes, characters, icons. From The Fashionisto and Simachev's website.

This familiar issue was picked up after lunch by Professor Peter McNeil, prolific author and professor at Stockholm University and the University of Technology, Sydney. He spoke about his experience writing texts for an exhibition on Australian design company Easton Pearson, for which he explored the designers’ relationship with “authenticity, intervention and revival”. The company often reprints old fabrics and modifies styles from a perceived “provincial Australia”.

"Campfire Calling" textile, designed by "Aboriginal urban designer" Bronwyn Bancroft 1989, printed by Ersatz Sydney 1993. From the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

Much like the Ripsa textiles I wrote about earlier, most of the Easton Pearson product is consumed outside of Australia, and the designers become ambassadors for their country. Are they thus more responsible for their design choices? Another layer of exploitation lies in the use of poor Indian textile artists, and translation becomes manifold as “traditional” designs are interpreted by designers and then worked by foreigners, with impressive skill but no vernacular knowledge.

Easton Pearson "Quista Dress", S/S 2011. From Australian Vogue website.

A further discussion of artistic depictions of dress and drapery was given by Swedish professor Margaretha Rossholm-Lagerlöf of Stockholm University . She spoke about the signs inherent in the wearing of dress, which indicates social status, as opposed to drapery, showing an interest in timelessness, as seen in Early Modern painting. Focusing then on the technical aspects, she also discussed techniques artists used to “translate” the cloth into painted form. In this work were threads from that of Professor Welch, warning of modern interpretation: Professor Rossholm-Lagerlöf cited Ter Borch’s The Gallant Conversation, assumed to be a customer propositioning a prostitute in a brothel.

"The Gallant Conversation/Paternal Admonition" by Gerard ter Borch, 1654. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

In a late eighteenth century French print, it was given the name Paternal Admonition, a (possibly intentional) mis-“translation” of the scene which persisted into the early twentieth century. How do we interpret the woman’s unchanging dress in light of the dual titles?

Professor Patrizia Calefato of Bari University rounded out this largely visual discussion with a presentation on semiotics: “Fashion as Cultural Translation” as relates to war, revolution and resistance. She spoke about the Arab Spring and Autumn, and the clothing systems in three spaces related to these revolutions: street (everyman), square (Tahrir), and (inter)net. In these public spaces, how do Middle Eastern clothing traditions mix with street-and protest-styles, which are so often Western? When do  When does fashion become a fashion system, what are the signs of the Arab Spring?

Presentations wrapped up with work-in-progress reports from Paula von Wachenfeldt on Fashion as the Art of Observation, Andrea Kollnitz on Frenchness in German and Swedish Caricature (1880-1930), and Patrick Steorn on Swedish 1960s Fashion in the United States. Such interesting topics–ten minutes of each was such a tease!

Frolicking in Fashionable Jumpsuits With Penguins

Fantastic Sighsten Herrgårdh photo shoot: his signature unisex jumpsuits. Here, he has put his extended family in matching black and white versions, to fit in with the penguins! From LIFE Magazine, Sept. 27, 1968.

With presenters from East and West, Northern and Southern Hemispheres, a lot of geographical area was covered. It would have been maybe even stronger to hear from presenters and/or areas less often represented, although this conference was a good reminder that issues of translation and appropriation are not limited to the more easily identifiable binaries of white/non-white, West/East, colonizer/colonized, etc.

I enjoyed the focus on two major topics, media/art and interpretation/appropriation, and I came away from this conference with an understanding of, among other things, a new approach (actions vs. objects), a new region (Russia circa now), and a wider global view. While the conference far from answered the question, “Is fashion truly global?” (a topic as huge and spherical as the planet itself), I was inspired by the questions raised by the research as well as by the strong, effective, and enjoyable presentations: one of the most difficult acts of translation.

Related Articles

1 Comment

  • Ashley December 29, 2011 11.06 pm

    What a lovely post – wish I could have been there.


Leave a Comment

Monthly Archive


Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at :, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.