Springtime in London: Women of the World, Fashion in Film, Alexander McQueen and Fashion Symposia

It’s exciting to finally see the dark evenings receding, spot little floral bursts of white, purple and yellow amongst the grassy urban verges and feel like my winter coat’s days are swiftly numbered!  To celebrate this arrival of spring, here are some interesting events related to fashion taking place in the capital this month.

The first is the Women of the World Festival at Southbank, in central London, which takes place this week 1st – 8th March.  In its fifth year, the WOW Festival celebrates women and girls through a range of talks, workshops and performances that draws upon the global and local.  Two interesting exhibitions about gender, identity and dress include the early 20th century self-portraits of artist Claude Cahun and Sara Shamsavari’s contemporary portraits of hijab styles as worn by young Muslim women in London, Paris and New York.  Both of these are free and run throughout the festival.  On Saturday 7th March, there is a specific talk on the power of fashion and a workshop on finding new ways to portray women in underwear to avoid objectification, both of which you can join by purchasing a day ticket for £20.

Lernert & Sander’s work featuring in Clothes on the Move: What’s Behind the Production of Fashion Films? 17 March

Later on this month is the Fashion in Film Festival, which launches on 17 March until 24 March across three London locations: Central Saint Martins, Somerset House and Hackney Picture house.  Also in its fifth year, this festival aims to explore the recent rise of the moving image in the fashion industry and get behind-the-scenes insights into the production of fashion films” through a series of talks and conversations curated by Hywel Davies and Marketa UhlirovaFeaturing speakers such as Caroline Evans, Nick Knight, Caryn Franklin, Pamela Church-Gibson, Oriole Cullen and Agnes Rocamora, the festival draws upon their views as historians, journalists, designers, image makers and theorists to debate the role of the moving image in fashion.  It will be an exciting programme of free events and I was particularly pleased to see the use of different London locations, making it possible to see much more!

Jacket, Alexander McQueen, It’s a Jungle out there, Autumn/Winter 1997-8. Image: firstVIEW

On Saturday 14 March, the V&A Museum will welcome visitors to the eagerly awaited exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, which runs until 4 August.  I can still remember booking my ticket this time last year for what will definitely be one of the most talked about fashion related events this year.  It will be interesting to see what the V&A’s fashion curator Claire Wilcox has done with the exhibition given its new European location.

Fashioning Professionals Symposium, 27th March Gaby Schreiber Industrial/Interior Designer (1916-1991). Photographer: Bee & Watson, 1948. Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives.

Finally, Friday 27th March is a popular day for fashion symposia here in the city!  Competing for our attention is Fashioning Professionals at the Research Department in the V&A Museum and Fashion and the Senses at London College of Fashion.  As it was impossible for me to be at both, I decided to attend Fashioning Professionals as this is more closely related to my research interests.  I will report back in April, hopefully along with a review of McQueen.

Happy Spring!

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Parisian Insights: Archimode at the Villa Noailles

I think I may have already said this here, but what first brought me to fashion was art and more precisely decorative arts and architecture. I was indeed specialized in History of Architecture and Decoratives Arts while I was studying at l’Ecole du Louvre and it is total art movements such as the Bauhaus, Art Nouveau, Wiener Werkstatte…that led me to fashion. Since, I have always tended to consider the relationships art and fashion have developed, should it be through inspiration, commercial and economic links, sponsorship…So when I read about the Villa Noailles’ exhibition, Archimode, I truly wanted to write about it here although I did not (and won’t) get the chance to visit it as the Villa Noailles is situated in the south of France, at Hyères, where unfortunately, I haven’t planned any future trip. Many of you may know the Villa Noailles as a major actor of Hyères Fashion and Photography Festival that attracts a trendy and influential crowd every year.

Chanel Mobile Art, Zaha Hadid

Chanel Mobile Art, Zaha Hadid

Archimode tends to explore the analogies between architecture and fashion by concentrating on six essential examples such as Chanel’s Mobile Art conceived by Zaha Hadid, the Prada Transformer concept imagined by Rem Koolhaas, the LVMH New York tower built by Christian de Portzamparc, the Isabel Marant and Kris Van Assche shops designed by Cigue and finally, the installations by les Diplomates for Damir Doma’s. With the help of numerous photographies, videos, drawings, material…the display provides many tools that enable visitors to comprehend how architects and interior designers build the identity and “soul” of a brand while they highlight strong conceptual elements that install those architectural projects not only as commercial venues but also as creative approaches, just as reflective as the garments sold and presented within. Interactions between architecture and fashion go way beyond the sole building, it is the design and scenography that help complete the fashion designer’s inventive process. Some architectural projects are more minimalistic than others and tend to help bring the attention on the fashion pieces only while others bring a whole new highlight, launching brands within a new dimension just as Chanel that from traditional and historical fashion house has become a futuristic concept with the help of Zaha Hadid’s UFO-like itinerant exhibition space. And yet, Karl Lagerfeld simply maintained the house’s relationship with avant-garde when Gabrielle Chanel herself had collaborated with Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso.

Prada Transformer, OMA-Rem Koolhaas

Prada Transformer, OMA-Rem Koolhaas

Prada’s Transformer, installed in Seoul and dismantled in 2009, featured four different sides that could be positioned in various ways depending on the use of the space: an exhibition, a film festival, a fashion show…: one unique building for different purposes and thus different identities. Muccia Prada is renowned for her interest in contemporary art, in all kind of visual and artistic disciplines and she has collaborated many times with the architect Rem Koolhaas. With Transfomer, she wished to unite and yet distinctly separate arts – proving once again that Prada’s intention is not to be considered as a fashion brand only but also as a veritable actor of the contemporary artistic world, a partner that organizes cross-disciplinary shows and calls upon architecture to enhance its conceptual identity.

Isabel Marant Store. Cigue Design

Isabel Marant Store. Cigue Design

Cigue is an interesting architectural agency that privileges minimalist and sculptural interiors that always respond to the aesthetic of the fashion designers it works with. While Kris Van Assche’s Parisian boutique privileges geometric and sharp contrasts, Isabel Marant’s stores feature warm woods and sleek crafted-like shapes that evoke Asian characters and French designers such as Jean Prouvé and Charlotte Perriand. Finally the French collective, Les Diplomates, has engaged a fruitful association with the fashion designer Damir Doma – imagining dark and mysterious installations for his fashion shows or installations within concept stores such as London’s Dover Street Market. In this case, more than an architectural encounter, comes alive a common and hybrid reflection on creation, an ideal chaotic setting that closely discusses with the occult garments of the designer.

Les Diplomates. Stair Installation for Damir Doma, Dover Street Market

Les Diplomates. Stair Installation for Damir Doma, Dover Street Market

Thus fashion designers, architects and also artists in general walk hand in hand in their creative processes. When they collaborate it is to better fuel their imagination, stimulate their inspiration…Architects and fashion designers find similarities in their discipline: they all build and have to think of the place of the human body and its environment within their designs- Hussein Chalayan likes to repeat how much ‘fashion is the architecture of the body’. And of course, when fashion designers collaborate with architects, they also find a way of being considered for something else than just ‘frivolous’ things such as fashion. With architecture, fashion enters the secluded world of art. 

I would be incapable of telling you if the Villa Noailles that is itself such a brilliant example of an ‘archimode’ concept – that avant garde design of Mallet-Stevens that now houses fashion events – exhibition is successful in its discourse but I can tell you how much I appreciate its theme.

Further Resources:

Castets, Simon. Louis Vuitton: Art, Mode et Architecture. Paris: Editions de la Marinière, 2009.

Hodge, Brooke. Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006.

Quinn, Bradley. The Fashion of Architecture. New York: Berg, 2003.

 

 

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Domestic Affairs: Hollywood Costume Review

Hollywood Costume

There are certain exhibitions that you simply have to resign yourself to never seeing, whether because of time, travel, or other constraints. When the American leg of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Hollywood Costume was announced, I had resigned myself to not seeing it since there were no venues on the list in California. And then the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced they would be inaugurating the opening of their own museum — in collaboration with LACMA — with a Los Angeles showing of the exhibition. I knew I would be going, and I was excited to see such a well-reviewed international exhibition. I had no expectations other than that I would be seeing amazing film costumes on display, and I suppose I thought this would be simply a more grandiose version of FIDM’s annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition. What I didn’t expect to see was possibly the best dress exhibition I’d attended since Fashioning Fashion.

Hollywood Costume

The exhibition is up in nearly pitch blackness, so it takes a while for your eyes to adjust. This is as much to protect some of the older garments — pieces worn by Charlie Chaplin and Carole Lombard — as it is to set the tone for the entire exhibition and make the costumes stand out. The displays are small at first: the initial platform had perhaps five different films featured, clearly separated from each other not only by physical barriers but by the differences between the costumes — from Mary Poppins to Beyoncé as a Dream Girl, to Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, to the wedding attire from The Last Emperor (seen above). These displays featured not only the posed mannequins wearing the costumes, but often moving images behind them of the actors wearing the garments in the films. Segments of the screenplays are displayed digitally to highlight how costumes fit into the production from the initial writing right up to the point that the audience sits down to watch the film.

And that rather sums up the entire exhibition: it was essentially a crash course in the importance of costuming in film, and the process of designing the costumes to enhance either the story, or a particular scene, or to establish a character — and often all three.

From the revelations of costume descriptions in scripts, the exhibition moved on to the importance of establishing a character in a particular scene. This was the initial example of how the exhibition integrated advanced technology into the exhibition without distracting from the central message, but instead enhancing it. Using a rather plain, uninteresting, grey ensemble worn by Matt Damon in the guise of Jason Bourne, and showing the scenes from the film in which it was worn, the exhibition demonstrated how costume designers and directors work together to create ambiance on screen – making characters appear and disappear using costume. They did this through showing a scene in which Bourne is supposed to be blending in with the crowd and then superimposing various obvious costumes onto the character using photoshop — demonstrating in a way a text panel never could how even an “uninteresting” costume is vital to the entire film.

Hollywood Costume

From this point, the exhibition moved on to showing how costume creates a character. Through not only the costumes, but copies of the designer’s sketches in the creation process they showed the creation of the various characters from the Ocean’s 11 remake. Following the projections onto a virtual draft table in front of the costumes you could see the time, thought, and even collaboration between the designer and the director and the actors, that went into each garment on the mannequins. It was fascinating to watch the other visitors’ eyes follow the notes from the sketches on the “table” back up to the costumes to see how the garments were used to establish each character. This in turn set the stage for the intense analysis of Indiana Jones that came next. As the exhibition was curated by (and the catalogue written by) Dr. Deborah Nadoolman-Landis who created the original costume for Indiana Jones, this was both natural and absolutely fascinating. Dr. Nadoolman-Landis explained not only how she came up with Indy’s color palette — as an archaeologist he works with dirt and underground so his palette, even while teaching, is brown — but the methods and techniques she used to age his hat and his jacket (she borrowed Harrison Ford’s pocket knife for the latter). All of which explained how costume was vital to the creation of a pop culture icon.

Hollywood Costume

Now that the creative process, and costume’s importance had been thoroughly established it was time to explore how different designers could interpret the same basic concept. Rather brilliantly, they did this through the numerous embodiments of Queen Elizabeth I — from Bette Davis to Judi Dench. It was also demonstrated through interpretations of the eighteenth century on screen, from an exact copy of a gown in a painting by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun for a 1940s biopic about Marie Antoinette, to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, to Glenn Close’s costume from Dangerous Liaisons. Each costume had a placard that told you not only who wore it and who designed it, but often had a quote from the designer about their inspiration which gave amazing insight into where each new interpretation of these two eras — Elizabethan and Baroque — came from.

Hollywood Costume

The second room was another interesting combination of technology and physical costumes. The exhibition set up “conversations” between the director and the costume designer — or actress and costume designer in the case of The Birds — through interviewing both for several films (or playing archival footage in the case of Edith Head). They did this for four films: The Birds (modern day interview with Tippi Hedren and archival interview with Edith Head), Closer, Django Unchained, and Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd (I may have felt like swooning at the chance to hear Colleen Atwood talk costuming no matter what the film). I didn’t spend as much time in this room, but it was still a fascinating insight into the process of creating a look for a character or an entire film and into the designer’s creative process.

Hollywood Costume

Hollywood Costume

The third room explored other aspects of costume design such as “remakes” of popular films — Ben-Hur, True Grit, Superman, and Cleopatra being the most memorable displays. This connected to the previous exploration of different interpretations as well as gave the exhibition the opportunity to showcase costumes from the Golden Age of Hollywood alongside modern costumes. This they did masterfully by placing Hailee Steinfeld’s costume from 2010′s True Grit next to John Wayne’s costume from the 1969 original, and by placing Claudette Colbert’s Cleopatra costume next to Elizabeth Taylor’s. Having revealed in a previous post that Singin’ in the Rain was my favourite film when I was about four years old, words cannot describe how excited I was to see an original Singin’ in the Rain costume next to similar garments from The Artist and Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby.

Hollywood Costume

Hollywood Costume

The star of this third room — and of so many films – was the display dedicated to Meryl Streep. Featuring costumes from films at the beginning of her career to some of her most recent roles (The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Out of Africa next to The Iron Lady), this platform showed just how costume can change and alter the appearance of a single actress. It was the final “lesson” of the exhibition, but one that was amazingly done — with costumes from obscure films Ms Streep has been in placed next to roles for which she has been nominated for and even won major awards.

Hollywood Costume

With all the ways costume is vital to film and the ways it transforms not just scenes but actors and characters firmly established, the final room was simply a smorgasbord of costuming history. Liza Doolittle next to Rose from Titanic, Pretty Woman next to a Carole Lombard gold lamé evening gown, Barbara Streisand costumes from the 1960s next to the American Hustle costumes, The Matrix next to Kill Bill — by grouping costumes according to genre (SciFi, historical, pseudo-historical, military) it showed how each theme can be interpreted based on the demands of not just the film but of the intended audience. The exhibition culminated, of course, with Dorothy’s ruby slippers — both the originals that are now fading behind plexiglass and some sparkling recreations.

One thing I was remarkably struck by was the difference in the quality of some modern costumes compared with those of the Golden Age of Hollywood. In the photo of the Cleopatra costumes above, there is a costume worn by Delilah in Samson and Delilah that has actual peacock feathers individually sewn into the cape and train; for one showgirl costume the skirt is actually made of mink; this is compared with Rose’s Titanic costume which is clearly printed pinstripe in person, not woven, and the fabric itself is not of the best weave available. It would have been very interesting to find out if this is due to a difference in expectations, budget, or if digital technology makes things appear differently on screen.

Hollywood Costume

I knew it was not just a good but an excellent exhibition when I realized I had lost track of time while viewing it. The only time I felt compelled to look at my watch was as I exited the building. The exhibition was also masterfully laid out. You always knew where you should go next, and the exhibition’s overarching educational point was made succinctly through visuals as much as tombstones and wall text. It did so without preaching or boring its audience with too much wall text, but also didn’t lose their audience through too little wall text, a very fine, difficult line for museums to walk. The Victoria & Albert and Academy walked this line well. Admittedly, since the exhibition takes place in an empty building being renovated by the Academy they had something of an advantage: they could create exactly the space they wanted instead of being constrained by an already existing exhibition space. I will be intrigued to see, as the renovations continue, what the Academy does with the Wilshire May Co. building and how it manages both permanent and special exhibition display spaces when the museum opens.

Hollywood Costume

Needless to say I was pleasantly surprised — astounded, even — by an exhibition I had almost given up having the opportunity to see. It simply establishes further the brilliance of the Victoria & Albert Museum, and whets my appetite for the future Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences museum. I’m now very keen to see what they have in store for us.

Have you seen Hollywood Costume, either in Los Angeles or at another venue? What did you think? How did it differ from my experience in L.A.? What were your favourite pieces or aspects of the exhibition? Please share your thoughts in the comments. Or if you have an event or exhibition you want Worn Through readers to know about, feel free to contact me so I can put it in my next column!

Hollywood Costume will be open next door to LACMA until March 2.

All images courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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Review: Guy Bourdin: Image Maker at Somerset House, London

 

Following on from my list of upcoming exhibitions in London at the end of last year, I finally made it to Guy Bourdin: Image Maker at Somerset House last month.  I couldn’t have been more happy.  This is an excellent exhibition that not only appeals to those specifically concerned with both the business and study of fashion, but also anyone who has ever been struck by an interesting advert or editorial in a fashion magazine.  My sister, who is a midwife, and a friend who manages the secondary schools programming for the V&A came with me and we were all delighted by the content and presentation of what is the largest retrospective of Bourdin’s work in the UK since 2003.

With over a hundred prints, as well as a wealth of other objects such as polaroids, sketches, films, paintings, notebooks and transparencies, the exhibition is huge, spanning Bourdin’s prolific career from 1955 to 1987.  This is divided up into eight large display ‘spaces’ across two levels of the Embankment Galleries.  The first space focuses on a road trip around Britain Bourdin took in 1979 with his wife, son, some fashion assistants and a pair of disembodied mannequin legs.  From London to Brighton to Liverpool, Bourdin travelled up and down the country in a black Cadillac, commissioned by the shoe company Charles Jourdan to take photographs for one of many advertising campaigns he directed.  Here, for the first time, you can see them, known as the ‘Walking Legs’ series, in its entirety.  While only three were actually published, overall there were 22 images which have been blown up and printed in technicolour glory. 

Walking Legs series, 1979

Each image presents us with the mannequin legs exploring the various everyday landscapes of Britain, from the seaside to the pub, from the bus stop to a park bench.  These heeled legs engage with their surroundings as they cross roads, lean against fences, walk through doors or even take a bath in a hotel room.  As you move between the images, you want to know where these legs will find themselves next, what shoes they might sport and who they might bump into.  In a recent interview about the exhibition and the influence of Bourdin on her own work, the fashion designer Mary Katrantzou gives a nice description of how his images draw us in:

“Bourdin’s images are all about the decoration of space. There is a tension between the woman, the space and her position in an environment which might have a prop such as a sofa. The way you see her changes because of the use of space, it evokes a certain emotion. You want to know the narrative: why is she there? What is the image telling us? There is always a story behind it. You become a bit of a voyeur, and that is part of their power. You want to find out more.”[1]

An example of how Bourdin uses the shoes as a McGuffin in order to drive the story forward in this scene Guy Bourdin: Charles Jourdan, Spring 1975

The second space is a large and long mezzanine gallery that again features blown up images of photographs he created while at French Vogue during the 1960s and 1970s, as well as more from Charles Jourdan where he was apparently allowed absolute creative freedom.  As you walk from side to side, taking in what are really quite monumental images of clothes and accessories always set within a highly staged scene, it is very difficult not to be seduced by Bourdin’s dark but funny depiction of women’s fashions.  It was interesting to discover that one of his influences, besides Surrealism, was Alfred Hitchcock’s use of a McGuffin, which is a prop that distracts us for a moment while we figure out what is going on in the story but has no bearing on its conclusion.  My understanding of a McGuffin is that it’s form is unimportant but that its function is to allow us to follow a story, sometimes making us stop to look around at what’s happening.  Bourdin often used shoes and accessories as McGuffins in his photographs by drawing attention to the scene so we can follow what is always a suggested or implied narrative.

An unfinished painting; a study for a photograph

I especially liked some small displays, in this second space, dedicated to showing us how Bourdin would research, develop and design his images before executing them on photographic film.  His notebooks, sketches, polaroids, even postcards, reveal not only a skilled draughtsman but also a very technical approach in the way that he worked.  Bourdin’s notebooks are full of written descriptions and poems that attempt to capture the visual images that were in his head.  They reveal someone methodical and exacting, an ‘obsessive formalist’ as suggested by a review of the exhibition in British Vogue.  This is further supported by one of the later gallery spaces that feature his paintings and earlier work produced under the watchful eye of Man Ray in Paris during the early 1950s.  The paintings are far from emotional affairs but rather they act as research for his photographs, allowing him to better see the colour and perspective of his theatrical images.

1973 double page Charles Jourdan advertisement

His attention to all aspects of his design process is reflected  in another room that shows how much editorial control he had over his fashion images in French Vogue.  Supported by the editor at the time, Francine Crescent, he often only provided the final image and specific instructions pertaining to its layout.   Most of us will also be familiar with the fact that it was Bourdin, along with Helmut Newton, who introduced the double spread editorial to fashion magazines. 

A photograph featuring the model Nicolle Meyer

The final three spaces are dedicated to his notable interest in shoes and legs as photographic subjects, his professional work featuring the model Nicolle Meyer, whom he worked exclusively with between 1977 and 1980 and, finally, a display of his polaroids which he often used to test out locations and scene dimensions.  These galleries provided further supporting statements for his attempts at perfectionism.  In particular, I liked how, with an advertisement for Charles Jourdan shoes, he would stage an elaborate set such as two women spending time in a hotel room and then photograph it from a variety of angles, as if he was filming it frame by frame. Only by doing this did it seem he could explore scale, composition and focus in order to ‘find’ the final image he had in his head.  

A polaroid taken in the mid 1950s of Paris by Bourdin

At first, I found the final display of polaroids slightly underwhelming, presented more as contemporary works of art which it seems is how the gallery representing the Guy Bourdin Estate would like his work to now be more understood.  However, since then, I read an interview with the curator Alistair O’Neill and his following comment made me think differently about their impact:

“I think it [the gallery of Polaroids] is the most intimate way of connecting Bourdin with his process. These things were very close to him,” says O’Neill. “He pulled them out of the camera as well as taking the picture, he shook it in his hand waited for it to develop and he kept them for a long time. Contrary to some of the exhibition photographs that have only recently been printed, these are very intimately connected to the photographer.”[1]

This comment also reflects, perhaps, Bourdin’s avoidance of any exhibition or sale of his work.  However, his preference for commercial ephemera in which to place his final image is curiously juxtaposed with an elaborate design process that resulted in a range of concrete, diverse forms in order to realise his imaginations.

Guy Bourdin, Vogue Paris 1977

Although there is much debate around Bourdin’s depiction of women and whether they are objects of subjects of the viewer’s gaze, this is not discussed in great depth within the exhibition.  I did wonder if this absence of interpretation had something to do with the curators and collaborators wanting these images to be seen more as works of art and less as consumable, designed images.  Yet, overall, the exclusion of the debate did allow me to really focus on the images, soaking them in before I then ponder upon their social, political and cultural significance. 

While I agree that the most successful aspects of the exhibition are those that are more personal[3], where Bourdin’s practices and influences are revealed, I actually enjoyed how little personal background there was about him.  Bourdin was evidently a very private person and yet despite this, he would go to great lengths to create his images. According to one article about him written in 2007, this included dying the sea a different colour, covering models entirely in glue and jewels so they couldn’t breath and having a pylon repainted a slightly different shade of grey.[4] The curator’s decision to avoid speculation about his artistic character, instead emphasising the extent to which he would create a photographic illusion was a wise one, making for a subtle but significant exhibition that I highly recommend. 

 

References:

[1] Interview with Mark Katrantzou by Lauren Cochrane http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/fashion-blog/2014/nov/28/mary-katrantzou-guy-bourdin-fashion-designer-photographer-exhibition

[2] Interview with Alistair O’Neill by Anya Lawrence http://www.disegnodaily.com/article/guy-bourdin-image-maker

[3] https://www.notjustalabel.com/editorial/guy-bourdin-image-maker

[4] http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/reviews/as-bold-as-bourdin-759162.html 

Top image: Guy Bourdin: Vogue Paris, May 1970 https://girlsdofilm.wordpress.com/2014/12/07/guy-bourdin-image-maker-at-somerset-house/

 

 

 

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Domestic Affairs: Hollywood Costume Review Teaser!

I had fully intended to write up a review of the Hollywood Costume exhibition, which I had the good fortune to see this past Sunday. Unfortunately work, job and PhD applications, and jury duty have all consumed my time. So in anticipation of my review to be posted on February 25, here is an wonderful video to whet your appetites. This exhibition is nothing short of amazing and I look forward to sharing my review with you soon!

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Parisian Insights: Sonia Delaunay – The Colors of Abstraction

I first began to develop an interest in Sonia Delaunay’s work during my early years at l’Ecole du Louvre, studying history of art. It was with the avant-garde movements of art that mingled all forms of creation, from painting to furniture and textile, that I built my passion for the history of fashion. Sonia Delaunay thus belonged to those innovative artists that fueled my curiosity and it is with much pleasure that I visited the Musée d’Art Moderne’s exhibition dedicated to her. The display is an incredible retrospective that features about 400 works raging from her earliest expressionist paintings and drawings to her late abstract pieces and, of course, her experiences in design and fashion.  Sonia Delaunay, The Colors of Abstraction perfectly emphasizes the artist’s affection for color and how she used it to build dynamism and unusual forms on any kind of canvas. Her life and work spreading from the Belle Epoque to the 1970s, the exhibition explores how her manner evolved during those years, placing it in a wider historical context thanks to photographies and videos of the periods.

Sonia Delaunay's son blanket, 1911

Sonia Delaunay’s son blanket, 1911

From a Russian background, Sonia Terk settled in Paris in 1906 and soon met Robert Delaunay who would become her husband and with whom she would explore a new form of abstract art based on the constructive and dynamic power of color: Simultanism. Promptly, Sonia Delaunay applied these colorful and rhythmic researches to various supports and techniques. Her relationship with textile began at her son, Charles’ birth when she imagined a blanket – presented in the display alongside her early abstract paintings – inspired by Russian folklore: a patchwork of colorful cubes that fueled their artistic concept and her will to apply their art to a new supple canvas. When World War I begins, the Delaunay family settles in Spain and Sonia Delaunay collaborates with Serge Diaghilev for the creation of costumes for a Cleopatra show danced by the Ballets Russes. Her costumes being a huge success, Sonia Delaunay becomes highly popular and thus opens a lifestyle boutique in Madrid, the Casa Sonia. When they return to Paris, the artist and designer concentrates on fashion and creates numerous textiles for the home but also simultaneous dresses, bathing suits, coats with forms dictated by colors and movement built by her intense geometric patterns. At the same time, she also works with the Dutch department store, Metz & Co that sells her fabrics.

Sonia Delaunay- Gloria Swanson coat

Sonia Delaunay- Gloria Swanson coat, 1924

In the display, textiles and fashion - within glass cases – mostly occupy the central room within the sections dedicated to the Factory and the 19, boulevard Malsherbes, the address of their home and dressmaking workshop – a commercial venture far from her artistic ideals but that met with much success at the 1925 International Exposition during which she collaborated with the Parisian couturier, Jacques Heim. Her colorful fashion is the mark of avant-garde personalities who dare to stand out and some of her clients are Nancy Cunard or Gloria Swanson for whom she imagines an impressive art coat presented here. The sections dedicated to Dance and Theatre (and cinema) also feature textile objects, the drawings and costumes she created while she joined forces with literature when she imagined the concept of the poem dress: dresses that bore her colors and the words of poets such as Tristan Tzara and Blaise Cendrars, once again adding a fundamental sense of modernity to her practice.  Sonia Delaunay saw color as ‘the skin of the world’, thus no wonder she intended to apply her art to fashion, our very own second skin. With her bold designs, she offered 1920s chic and modern women a daring alternative to couturier’s elegant designs. She enabled them to wear the latest innovative fashion but also the piece of art of an avant-garde artist. Often compared to Italian Futurists, Sonia Delaunay differed from their experiments as she concentrated on the chromatic effects that changed the dynamism and forms of her clothing while Giacomo Balla and the Futurists insisted on the cuts of garments and their movement in action.

Sonia Delaunay - Swimsuits, 1928

Sonia Delaunay – Swimsuits, 1928

After the stock-market crash of 1929, Sonia Delaunay put an end to her fashion venture and remained concentrated on textile design until her husband’s death, in 1941. She then returned to painting and was finally recognized from the 1960s as a major artist and inspired fashion houses such as Yves Saint Laurent, Moschino or Jean-Charles de Castelbajac . An artist that broke all the boundaries between arts and was eager to link art and everyday life as well as she announced with much modernism, the rise of ready-to-wear. A bright and airy display, the Musée d’Art Moderne exhibition is beautiful and incredibly complete with its numerous hanging photographies, paintings, drawings, illustrations…It is truly interesting to juxtapose all her creations and look at them via the prism of their original context – the exhibition features important material culture in a way French institutions have rarely done. It is lively and buoyant and never marks any rupture between her painting and her design work. A must-see! 

P.S: The exhibition will travel to the Tate in London from April 2015.

Further Resources: The Catalogue: Montfort, Anne. Sonia Delaunay. Paris: MAM, 2014.

Damase, Jacques. Sonia Delaunay - Fashion and Fabrics. London: Henry N Abrams, 1991.

Morano, Elizabeth. Sonia Delaunay – Art into Fashion. New York: George Braziller, 1987.

Timmer, Petra. Color Moves: Art & Fashion by Sonia Delaunay. New York: Smithsonian Design Museum, 2011.

And have a look at Melissa’s review on the Color Moves exhibition: interesting to see that the Cooper Hewitt display had proposed parallels between Sonia Delaunay’s work and that of her contemporaries. Something I would have loved seeing at the Parisian exhibition.

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Review: Women Fashion Power, Design Museum, London

Women Fashion Power opened at the Design Museum on the south side of the Thames in London on 29 October 2014 and is on display until 26 April 2015Co-curated by Donna Loveday, Head of Curatorial at the Design Museum, and Colin McDowell, fashion commentator and writer, the exhibition offers an unprecedented look at how princesses, models, CEOs, Dames and designers have used fashion to define and enhance their position in the world.”

A view of the exhibition from the back so you can see the third section Fashion and Women in the foreground, the second section Power and Fashion in the background.

Over one floor, the curators have chosen to approach the subject by splitting sources into three sections: Women and Power; Power and Fashion; Fashion and Women.  The first section, Power and Fashion, presents the visitor with a line up of historical portraits representing well known women in positions of authority including Cleopatra, Hilary Clinton, Angela Merkel and Queen Elizabeth II.  The second section, Fashion and Women, invites the visitor to look at how fashion has enabled women to obtain a range of increasing freedoms since the mid 19th century.  The final section, Women and Power, is dedicated to a display of 28 mannequins, dressed in a range of outfits lent by women considered to be successful in the fields of fashion, politics, business and culture.  Each outfit is accompanied by a photograph of the individual woman and her explanation of its significance in her working life.

A view of the first section Power and Fashion, featuring portraits and descriptions.

Upon reading the museum’s description of this exhibition, I was given the impression that the third section, featuring what Loveday describes as a series of “fashion portraits of contemporary women” would be the main highlight and therefore would have the most space given over to it.  For me, this was an exciting prospect because, as Loveday explained in an interview with Jess Cartner-Morley before the exhibition opened to the public,  ‘women are the heroes’ of what they wear, not fashion designers or retailers.  Since I received Women in Clothes for Christmas, I have poured over endless case studies of women thinking about what they wear, in all sorts of ways and with all sorts of clothes.  Each women featured is a hero in her own life, often the result of a complex and intimate relationship with what they wear so I could not have agreed more with Loveday’s comment.  Subsequently, I expected Women Fashion Power to invite me in and contemplate the ways in which fashion, dress, authority, success and politics create interesting intersections within the lives of a bunch of real women who hold a range of positions of power in society.

A view of the stairwell going up to the exhibition entrance featuring graphics by Lucienne Roberts.

Unfortunately, I could not have been more wrong.  To begin with, the exhibition is dominated by the second section on Fashion and Women. Covering over 150 years of fashion developments from the corset to ethical fashion, the displays chart how changes in what women have worn are the result of important social, political and economic changes, not just whims of fashion or frivolity. Despite Loveday’s insistence that it is not a history of fashion, it clearly is and this is reflected in the physical layout of sources, which are arranged chronologically.   I was met with predictable displays dedicated to eponymous designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Diane von Furstenburg or Coco Chanel and arrangements on the promotion of fashion or couture. Teleological in approach, this section appears to make very simplistic links between developments in fashion and increasing freedoms bestowed upon women in the last century.  

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‘Feminism’ and the Wonderbra (authors own photographs)

To see ‘Feminism’ reduced to a small display was disheartening, given how much the ideas associated with both the historical movement and theoretical discipline have not only informed women’s dress since but also reframed our understanding of women lives in the past.  When I came across a display of the well analysed Wonderbra advertisement featuring Eva Herzigova from 1995 without any explanation, it was difficult not to feel further disappointment.  Where were the documented experiences of women at certain historical moments and how they related what they wore to those events?  I did manage to find one example of this in a clip from a documentary in 1979 by the BBC called An English Woman’s Wardrobe.  It featured Margaret Thatcher going through her wardrobe, pulling out outfits that she had worn and explaining their significance to the presenter.  It was absolutely fascinating to see how interested and aware Thatcher was about what she wore and when.  If women in positions of power are this highly aware of what they wear, surely the rest of us are pretty conscious of the fact too?

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Margaret Thatcher discussing her wardrobe (authors own photograph)

To get to the third section, Women and Power, where I was hoping to find the real women, I had to go to the very back of the exhibition.  Given that this was a fashion exhibition that claimed to show how women related to fashion in their work lives, I think the fashion figures were unnecessary; many of them already feature in the second section.  Other figures include Camila Batmanghelidjh, Skin from Skunk Anansie and Dame Zaha Hadid.  Anyone familiar with those I have just named will know they represent a diversity of shapes, ages, ethnicities and styles so I was very surprised to find that all their outfits had been presented on identical mannequins, thereby diminishing both the status of the wearer and the significance of their clothes.

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Camila Batmanghelidjh’s photograph and outfit (authors own photographs)

I felt better when I discovered there are interviews, Q&As, with all the women featured about what they wear and their daily work lives, nicely ecohing the ethos of Women in Clothes and reminding us of their various individualities. Yet, these are presented as printouts within A4 binders so could easily be overlooked.  They require time to read, and after having spent too much time trying to negotiate the second section, I was unable to give them my full attention.

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Q&As on display at the back (authors own photograph)

Although the selection of women represent important sectors such as business, politics and culture, it was a shame not to see education, health or science included.   It is not surprising, therefore, that like many I was drawn to the outfit of Morwenna Wilson, a chartered engineer who has led the Kings Cross construction project in London.  Here is a woman whom we might never see otherwise, given what she does for a living.  Her decision to compliment a daily uniform of black trousers and white top with a range of interesting jackets, including one by Carven featuring a map of Paris, in an effort to be noticed within her work environment spoke volumes.  As a successful woman in a field dominated by men, Wilson drew attention to the subtle but important way clothes can help to define oneself in environments where dress conformity tends to be standardised.  Her interest in what to wear reminded me just how much gender roles and stereotypes inform what women wear and how little this is addressed throughout the exhibition.

Morwenna Wilson wearing her Carven jacket

If, as Loveday suggests, this is an attempt to explore fashion beyond the obvious term ‘power dressing’ associated with the 1980s then, yes, the exhibition definitely does that but, overall, it is underwhelming, only hinting at the complexities of how actual women negotiate power in their lives through dress.  There is a certain irony in this, considering just how many fantastic objects are on display.  

I probably should have spotted the clue in the title.  Women Fashion Power.  Not a Multiple Choice.  This exhibition is about women and fashion, which is the obvious bit.  Power, arguably less apparent but much more fascinating is sort of stuck on at the end. Fashion, power and women may not be about multiple choices but its a shame that the exhibition did not fully explore these limitations or discuss how women could have more choice in the future.  A more impactful exhibition might have emerged if the title had been rearranged to become Power Women Fashion.

I would love to hear what you thought of this exhibition, especially the 28 fashion portraits and the Q&As if you had a chance to read them.  How is what you wear informed by what you do in your work, where you work and with whom?

 

Opening image from the exhibition of women wearing beachwear in the 1930s. Image credit: [http://www.byoutifulyou.com]

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Italian Style: Exhibition Review

Italian Style*

Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945
Exhibition ran October 26, 2014 – January 4, 2015
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Curator at MIA: Nicole LaBouff; Curator of exhibition Sonnet Stanfill of Victoria and Albert Museum

*First image: Roberto Cavalli Leopard Print Gown
Spring/Summer 2007
Courtesy of Roberto Cavalli S.P.A.

Recently I took two visits to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to see the exhibition Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945. In my first visit I was toured through by curator Nicole LaBouff and then did an interview with her to get more background. You can read all about that by clicking here. I also put a number of additional photos in that post.

Before heading into the show I was drawn into the gift shops. I ended up spending a great deal of time enthralled by the vintage Italian designer fashion finds the museum had acquired for sale during the exhibit, as well as current Italian styles such as unique purses and furnishings, and a slew of fashion volumes perfect for holiday gifts or an indulgent self purchase.

HIGHLIGHTS AND DESCRIPTION:
Once entering the exhibition the story unfolds through a series of educational panels, numerous cases and platforms with mannequins and objects, a few video clips and slideshows, some framed wall documents and photos, and varied support pieces such as sketches, log books, fabric swatches, and muslin mock ups.

This enormous exhibition is a beautiful travel through time with room after room of displays. I tend to enjoy shows that canvas a lot of territory and explore many aspects of one theme. When a show dives too narrow it often feels like the viewer is aching to fill in the gaps. However, with a comprehensive show there’s always some challenges trying to encapass so much and do each aspect of the show the justice it deserves. It’s inevitable not all portions will be at the exact same level of quality. Overall, I’d say this show did a solid job at that, and maintained a fairly high level of visual intrigue and comprehensiveness. There were a few weak spots but those were outnumbered by the positive.

This exhibition originated at the V&A and has traveled to the MIA. Panels explained that V&A curator Sonnet Stanfill started devouring Italian Vogue as early as age 10, and took many trips all the way to Italy as a child from Alaska. These early entrances into fashion began her fascination with Italian culture and design. As she became a scholar her research indicated that there was limited study on the rise of Italian fashion; thus the catalyst of this show.

Both times I attended had fairly large crowds, primarily of women of all ages. There were groups of many sorts: students, ladies, and many multi-generational families of grandmother through toddler. All were enjoying the show using different reference points, although shared the same admiration of vibrant colors and eye catching embellishments.

The MIA ran a “living social” coupon for discounted admission, and also did an impressive showing of PR including neighborhood billboards. This was the first fashion exhibition from this museum and they were obviously making a big effort to get the word out. It’s too bad I missed the Italian fashion themed films they showed in support, however I believe those were only for museum members. It would have been an extra treat to see further activities such as an academic symposium or esteemed guest speakers. There are multiple fashion programs in the area, a strong local design and advertising community, and companies such as Target, which all create a community who would attend such events.

The educational introduction starts with WW2 and gives this as a jumping off point to see the quick rise to prominence of Italian fashion. Galleries then focus on this relatively contemporary time period and traces its rise, the shifts in its priority and design/manufacturing styles, the artistry, and name designers/stylists of the region. The entry galleries feature a beautiful array of dresses of the 1940s and 50s representing the first shows that took place at the house of a buying agent entitled Sala Bianca. Letters from buying agents and accessories add to this bright room of detailed ensembles.

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Sfilata (fashion show) in Sala Bianca, 1955
Archiveo Giorgini
Photo by G.M. Fadigati © Giorgini Archive, Florence

A highlight was gallery 3 which was focused on the traditional sartoria or dressmaker
Wardrobe of Margaret Abegg
whose husband owned a textile manufacturing company. She had a variety of garments commissioned and this gallery brings you into the world of the personal relationship between designer and wearer, as well as into the details of custom design. Also, Margaret’s clothing is a size and proportions conventional to the average woman and therefore it was refreshing to see the high-end clothes shown in non-runway sizes. I was not the only person in the room commenting on this feeling unique. While her taste was not flashy, and the items didn’t wow the spectator, this was a highlight gallery because of its thorough demonstration of how the items were employed including accessories and also the letter of bequeath to museum from Margaret.

These early rooms explain the development of their fashion shows and individualized market but also show that the informal clothes, such as some of Pucci’s were the key initial success in foreign markets as they spread for vacation use and broader appeal. The museum-goer then travels through a series of galleries such as the lively room highlighting the relationship of Italian fashion with Hollywood. Museum visitors were clustered around the movie clips and were also commenting on the sketches next to some of the garments showing the creative process. my interview with Nicole discusses the Elizabeth Taylor gems that eddie fisher gave her as a pitch to save their marriage. they were beautiful. a Vespa as well as a dress worn to Truman Capote’s black and white ball and other entertaining items.

Italian Style
Prada
Shoe with flame detail, Spring/Summer 2012
Courtesy of Prada
Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Italian specialty leather goods are featured throughout and showcased in a slideshow as well as a case of items from 1950′s and 60s. This is a bit drab of a presentation, but the items themselves are masterful. Another gallery focuses on the cult of designer and features those big names many of the guest were excited to see. This is a point that shines.

Menswear will get its due in upcoming exhibitions at other museums, but this was a useful preview as numerous mannequins demonstrated the value of the mens fashion market ranging from Hollywood style to tailoring expertise. In this section I watched many people walked right past the grand log book featuring client details and swatches, but I was fascinated by its oversized pages of fabric choices and measurements.

Embroidery and textile design were of course a crucial element of an Italian themed show and this was a section that was strong with ephemera. The viewer gained insight into Versace’s process of pattern design from inspiration through final product and advertising campaign, and Missoni’s knitwear process takes us from marker colors to yarn dye to final product. Apparently one of Missoni’s grandsons came to the show and reminisced.
Made in Italy as marketing term and less couture

The final gallery features includes some contemporary designers such as Piglisi and Dolce and Gabbana indicating that the quality is still at a very high level. The couture closing the show brings the concepts full circle back to the custom high end dress makers at its start. A final rom focused on the future showed a film about the direction of Italian fashion is going was intriguing discussing positives as well as challenges in the industry. It was hard to hear but still fun to watch because those featured were all significant in the field.

Giorgio Armani Privé gown, Spring/Summer 2010.
Giorgio Armani
Privé Gown, Spring/Summer 2010
Courtesy of Giorgio Armani

SOME CRITIQUES
As you can tell, I really liked this exhibition and I am enthusiastic that it will travel further and be viewed by many. This is not to say it is perfect though. I do have a series of notes that nagged at me that I would be remiss not to mention. I’m just going to lay them out. I do realize some would be do to time, space, and budget constraints and the fact it’s a traveling show and not from the institution itself:

    There is a narrative from room to room, but it’s a bit hard to follow and doesn’t feel like a story. I had to work to follow along. I think many people use admired the clothes but not the storyline. That’s probably completely normal though. This is exacerbated by some display choices where items are showcased that don’t seem that important (like Pucci lounge wear) and other key pieces are tucked into the crowd.
    The lighting is dim in some sections, films are quiet, fonts are small in films, and sometimes I entered a room and basically walked into a black corner when the way finding seems like I could have been directed into something more exciting rather than walking around a wall. I did hear complaints from the audience.
    Some messages are conveyed in panels but then not translated well into the exhibition design. I know a lot of people do not read the data and are visual learners so it is crucial to be visually dynamic. One example was a mention of all the stylish film actors wearing the clothes but there was limited showing of this in objects (not the Hollywood room but a second room). Another is the party atmosphere of Fiorucci but then the design of that display is very skeletal and not festive.
    People love to be near celebrities, and some of the biggest names and best stories of the show are tucked in almost indistinguishable. There’s a suit worn by JFK but it’s amid a row of other men’s suits with little fanfare. Museum guests were frequently name dropping a wish to see Jackie O’s clothing and there was none, however there was Lee Radziwill’s dress although again, not spotlighted. The curator’s favorite garment that she feels represents the highest craftsmanship is on the far side of one case and easy to walk past. Also there is an Armani suit that is a quintessential style of his career, yet the label does not share the story that designer hand picking the garment for the show (which gives it an extra special feel when that is known; Nicole let me know this story and it gave me a higher reverence for the object). Then there is a small photography section that is a focal point, but seems sort of removed from the core. Overall, this reflects hit and miss choices of which items are under a spotlight and which are quietly in the very large mix.

Irene Galitzine, silk palazzo pyjamas, c.1963.
Irene Galitzine
Silk Palazzo Pyjamas, c.1963
Courtesy Historical Archive Maison Galitzine
Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

CLOSING THOUGHTS
It’s clear this exhibition was lovingly researched and constructed. I overheard one woman said “Timeless styles” with a smile and sigh. Sure a few spots were awkwardly presented or felt dry, but this is the reality of a comprehensive exhibit as the budget and resources do have a finite point. Overall the display of iconic and lesser known names internationally gave us the fun of seeing beautiful representations of familiar brands and also introduced us to those we may not know. Upon exit there was a cute children’s section with fashion illustration and photography activities, looking at the childrens’ drawing’s left behind it was clear from this exhibition that the legacy will continue.

Exhibition Acknowledgments:
Exhibition organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Presented by Nordstrom and the Blythe Brenden-Mann Foundation.
Major Sponsor: Delta Air Lines
Generous support provided by: Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, Topsy Simonson

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Domestic Affairs: A New Year of Fashion Exhibitions!

Hollywood Costume

Museums, universities, and the Costume Society of America are ringing in the new year with new events, and exhibitions new and old.

The Costume Society’s Western Region has just opened registration for its first program of the year: a guided tour of Hollywood Costume led by CSA-WR-member Dr. Deborah Nadoolman-Landis. The event will take place at the Academy of Motion Pictures museum on February 7, 2015. Registration is open until February 2. For more information and to register follow this link.

Also in Los Angeles, the FIDM Museum is preparing to open the 23rd Annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition. Open from February 10 through April 25, 2015 and the main FIDM campus, I understand they have costumes from Maleficent among many others.

At the Phoenix Art Museum, well-known fashion and textile scholar Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell will be giving a lecture today, January 14th, on her new book, Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The lecture begins at 12:30 and will be preceded by a luncheon at 11:30. While there you should see the museum’s current fashion exhibition: Fashioned in America which opened in October and is up until March 15.

In New York, the Bard Graduate Center has announced that they will be featuring Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette, opening April 3 and up until July 26. At the Museum at FIT, their latest exhibition, Faking It: Originals, Copies, and Counterfeits is on display until April 25.

At Kent State, Geoffrey Beene: American Ingenuity will open on January 29 and be up until August 30. While there you can also check out American Jewelry Design Council: Variations on a Theme: 25 Years of Design, The Great War: Women and Fashion in a World at War (which I previously did a virtual review of here), Entangled: Fiber to Felt to Fashion (entering its last weeks), and Fashion Timeline.

I am most grateful to reader, Leesa, in Toronto for telling me about Politics of Fashion/Fashion of Politics at the Design Exchange museum, which will be closing on January 25.

Are there any events or exhibitions you would like to promote here on Worn Through? Have you been to any of these exhibitions or events? What did you think? Feel free to share your thoughts or event and exhibit recommendations in the comments below. Or to email me the information.

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Parisian Insights: 2015 – A Very Fashionable Year

If some of you have been reading my posts from the very earliest, you might remember that about two years ago I was complaining on how poor Paris was, compared to other major cities, in the presentation of fashion-orientated studies and exhibitions. Since, my wishes have been fulfilled thanks to wonderful events from a magical Dries Van Noten exposition to a glamorous look at the 1950s, and the end of the year was highlighted by a symposium about fashion during World War I I unfortunately missed, having to travel abroad on that particular weekend but I know Jaclyn will share a review as she attended it. 2014 was thus delightful, 2015 announces itself as exceptional!

Fashion Mix Poster

Fashion Mix Poster

 

The Immigration Museum has just launched an exhibition entitled Fashion Mix that explores the work of foreign designers that have enriched French fashion: at a time when political extremes are rising in France, I find it very brave and interesting to highlight such a theme, I can’t wait to visit and review the presentation. Then, we will explore the mysterious and delicate world of buttons at the Arts Decoratifs from February: quite an audacious subject for a museum used to more popular blockbusters. Jeanne Lanvin (sigh!!) will be honored at the Galliera Museum in March – the very first retrospective dedicated to the couturier in France – before Jean Paul Gaultier at the Grand Palais in April. And let’s not forget fashion-related shows such as the V&A’s David Bowie Is…that will take place at the newly opened Philharmonie, a Harry Potter exhibition with many bewitching costumes at the Cité du Cinema or the life of Edith Piaf and some of her little black dresses at the Bibliothèque Nationale…If some of you living abroad are planning a trip to Paris, it’s the moment!

Finally, I am myself, thrillingly,  preparing a participation to a conference dedicated to Marie Antoinette and Fashion at the Chateau de Versailles, I will be happy to share with you.

Let’s thus wish ourselves a very fashionable year!

 

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