I’ll say straight out that as an admirer of the work of Amy de la Haye and Judith Clark, I was happy to see a publication on fashion exhibitions coming from these two accomplished and innovative curators. As many Worn Through readers are likely aware, Clark and de la Haye have curated several exhibitions for the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and are faculty at the London College of Fashion. They take very different approaches to the practice and subject of fashion curation, which often intersect with each other. Clark has been careful not to call herself a “dress historian”, preferring to use fashion to “talk about other things” (Clark and Philips, 2010: 110) and make linkages in aesthetics, philosophies, and design techniques and strategies across time and space. De la Haye takes an object-based, historical approach guided by material culture studies and the social life of dress. The front and back covers illustrate these approaches and the ultimate goal of the book quite nicely, with an archival installation photograph of the main subject of study, “Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton” (front cover), and its trajectory into the future with a recasting of the exhibition’s promotional imagery and Beaton’s garment selection through a photograph from Harper’s Bazaar in 2013 (back cover).
Front and back covers of Exhibiting Fashion: Before and After 1971, Yale University Press, 2014
This study is not an exhaustive overview of the history of fashion exhibition themes, strategies, protagonists, or techniques (de la Haye directs readers to Lou Taylor’s excellent Establishing Dress History  for more detailed historical analysis). The title alludes to this incompleteness by referencing a specific pivotal date in time–the year 1971. The authors take “Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton” (henceforth referred to in this review as “Anthology”) as a significant marker that changed how fashion was interpreted and displayed, “a moment of shift in fashion curatorship” (p. 6). Overall, the focus is squarely on the V&A and Beaton’s exhibition, with brief discussions of exhibitions and exhibiting strategies at other museums in the UK, Europe, and the U.S. (the latter mainly the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Because Anthology is not discussed by Beaton in his diaries or by his subsequent biographers, de la Haye and Clark saw a gap in discussion and an opportunity to give this exhibition the scrutiny it deserves, utilizing the recollections and research of past V&A curators, the institutional papers, and archival photographs.
De la Haye and Clark set up their case by first giving some crucial historical context as to why Beaton’s exhibition matters so much (the first three chapters are written by de la Haye). Historically, garments were first kept at the V&A because of the quality or importance of the textile only, or the trimmings or embroideries as evidence of craft. In the context of the V&A, modern, contemporary fashion was not collected pre-1971. Up to that point, the goal of bringing legitimacy and respectability to the study of fashion and dress continued to be hard-fought, with the prevalent attitude to costume throughout most of the 20th century as being a “a sort of rather unholy by-product of the textile industry,” to quote Charles Gibbs-Smith commenting on the occasion of James Laver’s death in 1975 and the respectability that Laver brought to the study of costume in England (p. 38). De la Haye dedicates several pages to three British dress study and curation pioneers–James Laver, Doris Langley Moore, and Anne Buck. These “curatorial case studies” not only acknowledge their contributions to the field but also act as a foil or significant antecedent to the display and curatorial choices within Beaton’s exhibition.
An important point de la Haye emphasizes is that the only two exhibitions of modern fashion at the V&A in the 20th century (pre-1971) were organized by non-professional curators, or by those outside of the museum world–Beaton in 1971, and the 1946 exhibition, “Britain Can Make It” (BCMI), by James Gardner, affectionately known as “G”. Both exhibitions were also connected to the commercial side of fashion as well–the Council of Industrial Design for BCMI, and the talents of window dressers from major department stores and the inclusion of contemporary London boutiques for Anthology. BCMI was an industry show of mixed media with a large emphasis on contemporary fashion for men, women, and children–some fashions so new that they were not yet available to the buying public. The role of exhibition designer did not exist before WWII, and BCMI showcased innovative and “fantastical” exhibition techniques and tableaux by Gardner that were new to the presentation of fashion. This is evident in numerous archival photographs found at the Brighton University’s Design Archives that reveal spaces filled with theatricality, a sense of movement, and a touch of Surrealism, and contrast with photographs of costume display at the V&A pre-1946 in previous pages, which tend to show garments in rows of display cases or configurations that call for contemplation of single or small clusters of garments in a spare, uncluttered space. Interestingly, BCMI continues to be the highest attended show in the V&A’s history. Eye-catching, theatrical, and highly designed exhibitions continue to draw crowds and capture the public’s imagination today.
Next, de la Haye discusses Beaton’s artistic practice. Numerous examples of his innovative approaches in film and theater design, photography, and his love of fancy dress and the fashionable people he often photographed inform how he envisioned his collection, and ground the presentation of dress seen in the exhibition images in Chapter 3. One can see Beaton’s penchant for creating tableaux with unusual, “low tech” materials (such as distinctive foam masks on mannequins, originally intended for their packing and transport), and his love of illusion and “metamorpheses of space” that were realized through the work of exhibition designer Michael Haynes.
Beaton first suggested the idea for an exhibition of modern fashion to the museum’s then-director, John Pope-Hennessy, in 1969. Couture would be its “central tenet”, and it was accepted by the director with the stipulation that the exhibition would steer clear of celebrity and promote the garments as “works of art”, not “socially salient objects”, in keeping with the V&A’s emphasis on design (p. 69). Ironically, this focus would fall short of Beaton’s original vision of highlighting the specific personalities and tastes of the fashionable women he admired (this would be done four years later at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “American Women of Style”, curated by Beaton’s close friend, Diana Vreeland). Instead, the exhibition was broken up into 16 sections, some chronological (1920s, 1930s, 1950s), some dedicated to a particular designer (Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy), some to English contemporary design (Mary Quant, Biba), some to a particular “look” (Space Age) or group (Royal Family).
De la Haye examines this loss of object biography in an extended discussion of Diana Vreeland’s sequined Chanel pyjama suit, which she first considered in her article on Beaton’s Anthology in Fashion Theory (Haye, 2006). She not only considers Vreeland’s ensemble in the context of Anthology, but also how its presentation and attendant meanings have shifted and changed in the years before and after 1971, both at the V&A and other institutions worldwide. This is a good set-up for Clark’s later section, which traces the outward and inward reverberations backwards and forwards in time of the styling, construction, display, and conceptual approaches in the exhibition.
One of the strengths of this book is the copious illustrations, many of which have never been seen before this publication, and that dominate the central section of the book. There is not one section of this publication that is not significantly illustrated. In talking about and researching exhibition history, images are crucial, and oftentimes they are all we have in reconstructing a curator’s vision or intention. Sometimes there are none at all left to posterity. The size of the publication, nearing coffee table book-size at 12 inches in length, lends itself well to showing off the color and black-and-white installation photos to their best advantage.
Complete documentation of installations is common now, but much more unusual for exhibitions of the past. De la Haye notes that often the timing of publication and exhibition do not coincide, and that studio shots are generally privileged over installation images. Likely because of the high-profile nature of the Beaton exhibition, many installation photographs exist; several photos show the same installation from different vantage points. This is extremely helpful for analysis, as both de La Haye and Clark note that the object selection for exhibition was done very hastily, and the exhibited items are not noted in the catalog (all 405 garments and accessories from Beaton’s collection–donated to the V&A, the first significant gift of contemporary fashion–are listed). De la Haye describes Beaton’s installation and Haynes’s design as “enticing, exacting, and original” (p. 72) even to our eyes today, and the photographs of extremely varied and dynamic tableaux are very convincing of this point. As Judith Clark points out in her later section (#15, “The Mannequins–Gestures”, p. 145), the shorthand or “simplistic equations” for mannequin choices were not established as of 1971. Anthology’s configurations and mannequin types (especially the bald, makeup-less ones) may look very familiar to our contemporary eyes and we may forget how experimental they were at the time. Some viewers found the bald mannequins, their heads draped with chiffon, unattractive, “as though there was a bank raid in progress” (p. 104); it was also revolutionary at the time for designer boutiques to use mannequins–the standard method was flat display for garments.
When the book shifts to dusty rose pink pages with red ink print, this aesthetic clue tells us that we are shifting gears–the visual equivalent of “now for something completely different.” Despite this signal and pleasing color combination (and not the only case in the book where color is used to indicate a transition in direction), I must say that the red print on pink paper is extraordinarily difficult to read, even in the best of lighting situations.
Judith Clark chooses “28 Aspects” of the exhibition on which to focus her attention,whether it is the multiple meanings of a styling prop (#6, “Wigs”; #15, “The Mannequins–Gestures”; “Peach Mirror”), the employment of certain kinds of materials (#14, “Gauze–Blurring”; #10, “Perspex”), future exhibitions inspired by the methods or motivations of Beaton’s Anthology (#4, “Environments, 1996″; #24, “After Beaton, Jones”), a design or museological strategy (#13, “Rotations”; #1, “Finding Space”), or exhibition images that elucidate Anthology catalog entries (#7, “Painted Backdrops: Dali, Bosch and Lepape”), to name a few.
Clark weaves a web of connections between the exhibition and its designers, collaborators, and overall aims to other exhibitions, designers, imagery, museum practice and display approaches past and present. For example, she considers how contemporaries such as Anna Piaggi and vintage dealer Vern Lambert affected Anthology and Beaton’s vision (#23, “Italian Vogue”) and how future designers like Gianfranco Ferre followed threads considered by Anthology and engaged fashion past and present simultaneously (#4, “Environments, 1996″). In the majority cases the visual and textual evidence for her time and space traveling is intriguing and compelling. She uses Anthology to “talk about other things” (her quote referenced above) and raises some interesting questions, such as, “If the object (dress) is already defined by its commercial production and established means of dissemination, does it mean that the exhibition can only be an extension of this, or can it be a critique of it too?” (p. 151).
Some readers may find this open-ended, non-conclusiveness unsatisfying, but in many cases a definitive answer to many of these questions is not possible nor necessarily desired, and leaves the question open for the reader to consider. However the reader chooses to view 28 Aspects, I find that Clark takes an interesting approach to dissecting the meanings and significance of the various exhibition strategies and circumstances, and how they have been culled from both the past and contemporary practice and reverberate forward into the future. Clark’s meditations are about exploring possibilities and connections, anticipated and unexpected.
The final section, “An Incomplete Inventory of Fashion Exhibitions Since 1971″ by Jeffrey Horsley, is also illustrated and invites the reader to chart further the traces of or departures from Anthology throughout subsequent exhibitions, from 1971 to 2014. The image of a robe à la française at the Musée Galliera reflected in an infinity mirror (p. 199) recalls the optical illusion mirror in the Dior section of Anthology, or the concentric black and white squares behind Beaton’s costume for My Fair Lady that greeted visitors at the exhibition entrance.
Horsley culled exhibition dates and titles from colleagues, his own collection of exhibition brochures and ephemera, and from exhibition reviews in journals. Exhibition trends, though not conclusive, reveal that exhibits of wedding attire, 18th century dress, and accessories (hats, shoes, etc.) are perennially popular. The “thought show”, or exhibitions examining cultural and social issues surrounding fashion continue to grow since the 1990s; designer monograph exhibitions are also very popular but remain Eurocentric, with the exception of Japanese contemporary designers.
Beaton reflected on his regret that he could not include or acquire everything he wished for for the exhibition and the larger collection with the statement, “I comforted myself that an anthology, by its nature, is always incomplete” (p. 71). Those looking for a definitive, complete study of international fashion exhibition history in this publication will be disappointed. This publication offers instead a thought-provoking, creative–and incomplete–approach to looking at exhibiting fashion and a pivotal moment in fashion exhibition history. Overall, Clark, de la Haye, and Horsley’s study successfully demonstrates how Anthology was, especially for the V&A, a plunge into uncharted territory with new and exciting presentations of not just historical fashion, but clothing of the moment. It provides fascinating material to return to again and again, and leaves out a welcome mat for all who wish to venture further into the research of the fashion exhibition.
Clark, Judith and Phillips, Adam (2010). The Concise Dictionary of Dress. London: Violette Limited.
Haye, Amy de la (2006). Vogue and the V&A Vitrine: An Exploration of How British Vogue has responded to Fashion Exhibitions at the Victoria & Albert Museum from 1971 to 2004, with specific reference to the exhibition, “Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton” and garments imprinted with wear. Fashion Theory (10): 127-151.
Taylor, Lou (2004). Establishing Dress History. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.
If I didn’t know better, I would claim that someone at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco knows that March is my birthday month. Not only did Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland open at the deYoung at the beginning of the month — institutions I visited frequently while earning my master’s degree in Edinburgh — but High Style: The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collectionopened a week and a half ago at the Legion of Honor. I was lucky enough to visit on Saturday as part of a Costume Society of America, Western Region event.
I had been aware of the wealth that is the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, even while a graduate student new to the field. This speaks to the magnitude of the collection, that even in cold Edinburgh with the Victoria & Albert a four-hour train ride away, I was avidly following the Brooklyn Museum-Metropolitan Museum of Art costume collection merger. Not that I need tell anyone reading this blog that this is an incredible collection. That being said, I was extremely keen to see High Style, since as a California resident I had no idea when I would have such an opportunity again.
The exhibition was extremely popular, as fashion and costume exhibitions are wont to be, with a hugely diverse audience. The exhibition moves to a certain extent through decades which gives a sense of continuity and impressions of a general aesthetic for each era from 1900 to the 1980s. This was an intriguing background for the clothing of the visitors who might be “old” or “young” (both being relative terms), from hipsters to well, anyone and everyone else. To me, this diversity speaks to the universal appeal fashion exhibitions have to the public, especially when they are as well done as this one.
I went through the exhibition twice. Once with my ‘Worn Through Managing Editor’ cap on, the other as myself — because it was such an amazing exhibition. Having purchased and looked through the catalogue after these two walkthroughs, it became very apparent that the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) selected only a small portion of the collection available to them. This was clearly both purposefully and masterfully done. While the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century historian in me is a bit sad that I did not get to drool to the side of the garments from those eras, I was extremely impressed by this exhibition, and surprised to be.
Considering the wealth of talent in the Bay Area, the FAMSF museums often fall short in the exhibition design department. There is a lot of stepping on toes, nearly colliding with other patrons, and looking lost as you look for the next audiotour track number — if you are using an audiotour — because where you are supposed to go next is anything but clear. This may be a personal quirk of mine, but the flow of an exhibition’s layout and design is something that I am always hypercritical of when I am visiting exhibitions. Even when I enjoy an exhibition, I can feel myself tut-tutting at the layout in the back of my mind if it is very noticeably vague. I don’t want to be distracted by the art because I’ve just nearly — or possibly not “just nearly” — collided with another visitor. This is possibly unfair — one of those “museum insiders make the worst museum visitors” instances – since I am fully aware that the museums are often left adapting spaces that are not ideal, but it is still something that needles me. That being said, High Style is beautifully laid out and uses the temporary exhibition space in the Legion of Honor’s basement to perfection.
The FAMSF selections as I said take full advantage of the catalogue offered them by the Brooklyn Museum, but to tell a story they wish to tell. The story they chose is the story of haute couture and high fashion from 1900 through 1980s. While the first arresting gowns are evening and presentation gowns of the 1920s — who can object to a little glitter to start off an excellent exhibition — the museum expertly uses its awkward exhibition space to give patrons a crash course in fashion history. We begin with the heyday of haute couture, with gowns by Doucet and Worth from 1900 to circa 1913. This careful, meticulous, visual lecture in both haute couture history and the history of 20th-century fashion was so well done that I was not limited to just my fellow Costume Society of America members for pleasant interchanges, instead I had the unusual experience of connecting with several other visitors — virtual strangers — but also the gallery attendants and other museum employees about the garments, their construction, and which were our favorites.
As you can see in my photo above, which shows the first group of gowns, the excellence of curation in these three gowns properly, and as completely as possible, shows the evolution in silhouettes from 1900 until the eve of the First World War. There is also the subtle detail, elegance, and exquisite workmanship that illustrates in a way no wall panel or catalogue could the expertise that goes into the creation of an haute couture garment.
From these three, the exhibition led visitors into what I have always thought of as an awkward, random room in the temporary exhibition space. You go into it, you can even exit from it, but it often disrupts the flow of the exhibition even when it’s not intended to. For High Style FAMSF made it what I think of as the “Accessories Room.” It was in this awkward space that the millinery and the glorious shoes and shoe prototypes were displayed. Again, this was brilliant exhibition planning because these objects were extremely interesting — you can see a fashion student in my photo below sketching one of them — but they didn’t quite fit anywhere else in the exhibition. And since so many of them were from the period between 1900 and 1930 that the entrance room focused on, the time frame fit: this is how (posh) people bought shoes before online shopping or chain and department stores. This is something that has long interested me: how fashion was disseminated and consumed in previous eras, so to have the design and marketing of shoes so prominently explored was absolutely wonderful.
As you exit the room the mastery of the topic becomes particularly clear to those of us “in the know.” Instead of leaping straight into the 1920s, which you couldn’t blame the museum for doing with the post-Gatsby/Downton Abbey Season 5 fever upon many visitors, you are instead treated to four mannequins in Liberty & Co. and Callot Souers garments, all dating from 1900 t0 circa 1913. This is pure brilliance on the part of the museum, because directly. Through seven mannequins the FAMSF managed to show the breadth — including the socio-political issues — of the pre-WWI fashions without drawing so much attention to the topic that it became the only subject of the display. This may or may not have been the point at which my mother texted me to “STOP” sending her pictures because the 1910s are her favorite era and she hasn’t had a chance to visit the exhibition, yet. I neither confirm nor deny anything.
As you can guess, the exhibition followed a strict chronology from this point on. There were the gorgeous 1920s evening and presentation gowns from the beginning to peruse again — viewing the amazing detail at the backs — as well as other glamorous garments from the era and one day dress that was arresting in its exquisite, delicate, simplicity amidst the glitter and embroidery.
The next section was suitably “shocking.” I won’t apologise for the pun. The next five garments and three pieces of jewellery were all dedicated to the eclectic brilliance that was Elsa Schiaparelli. There isn’t much need to explain further, since I’m sure most if not all readers of this blog already know Schiap’s contributions to fashion history. What I will say is that seeing Schiaparelli pieces in person was a bit jaw-dropping as someone who had only ever seen them in photographs until Saturday.
I was most amazed, being able to see them in person, by the detail on Schiaparelli’s accessories. Only three necklaces were featured, but those that featured leaves were beautifully articulated to properly mimic the imperfections of color you often find in leaves. This again underlined what the true meaning of haute couture meant, even if it was executed with a sense of art and whimsy.
I was stopped dead in my tracks, however, by a Madame Grés and a Madeleine Vionnet gown in the same display. These two women have long been my favorite French designers. So, to see not one, but two gowns by each woman was nothing short of a dress historian’s dream come true.
The rest of the room rather naturally focused on post-World War II European fashion. Again, through excellent curation, FAMSF selected pieces from Dior, Givenchy, Balenciaga (swoon), Yves Saint Laurent (swoon again), and 1960s Chanel to show the breadth of silhouette, technique and elegance that Europe revitalized after the depravations of World War II.
It was from here that the exhibition diverged into American fashion design andcouture. This was a brilliant contradiction — if you will — in style. As you enter (as you can see below), the main image is that of austere, classical elegance, a logical extenuation of the constraint seen in the post-WWII European fashions. But as you move about the room, first behind you and then in a counter-clockwise path you notice the differences: American freedom but innovation in shape, and overwhelmingly the sense of fun especially as concerns use of fabric and color. This is not discussed in the wall texts or tombstones at all, it is simply a visual impact that speaks for itself.
The exhibition ended as fabulously as it had begun, with Charles James. Again, this was not simply a catalogue of James’s accomplishments but a true exploration of his genius. It emphasized that while American fashion can be trendy, ridiculous, and fun, that does not preclude elegance. Featured was a wide array from James’s career, from muslins for his most famous dress silhouettes beside the actual finished garments, to trouser skirt-suits for women who married into the Hearst family and his famous clover-leaf ball gowns.
Even more spectacularly, the final “room,” if you will, was a “design studio” that featured some of James’s most complex designs below which were animated screens that dissected and demonstrated how the garments were constructed. I thought this was a phenomenal way to end the exhibition, which had emphasized the craftsmanship and couture, to show how much engineering and ability went into these incredible gowns which can only be described as works of art.
As you exit the exhibition to enter the gift shop (an evil place full of temptation), the walls are lined with original Charles James design sketches. Having done my master’s internship working with a collection of works on paper, this seemed the ideal way to end such a phenomenal exhibition.
The exhibition was unsurprising as a dress historian. It was “simple” in that it merely followed the trajectory of high fashion from 1900 through to the 1980s. However, the execution was absolutely marvellous, and I have to confess it was wonderful to simply go through an exhibition without having my “critic” hat on, or keen to learn anything earth-shatteringly new, but simply to admire the garments and the execution for what they were: the very reason I became a dress historian.
Have you seen High Style? What were your thoughts? Do you have any comments or critiques to offer? If so, please feel free to agree or disagree with me in the comments below! And if you know of any upcoming exhibitions or events happening in your area, please feel free to mention them or to email me so that I can feature them in my next column!
Reproductions in museum collections are gaining more attention these days. This is one of my research interests, so I was excited to hear last fall that an exhibition devoted to copies and counterfeits, Faking It: Originals, Copies, and Counterfeits, would be organized by The Museum at FIT. I knew I wouldn’t be able to travel to see this exhibition, but I was able to have a telephone conversation with curator Ariele Elia, who generously shared her time to answer some of my questions about the exhibition’s preparation and execution.
This post will not cover every fascinating facet of this exhibition, so I would encourage readers to visit the exhibition website for a fuller picture of the overall themes and specific objects of study.
Jill M: The exhibition description states that the organization and research for the show was motivated by current discussions surrounding fashion counterfeiting and copying. How do you view the existence of these items within a museum collection, or what do you feel is the importance of collecting copies or “knockoffs”? How many copies, authorized and unauthorized, does FIT have in its collection, and will it continue to collect reproductions, copies, and counterfeits, both historical and current?
Ariele Elia: Copies and counterfeits are very important in telling the story of the fashion industry and how it functions. Most of the fashion-interested public cannot afford couture or designer garments, and with copies one can still be in the latest fashion for a fraction of the cost. While the existence of copies and counterfeits has gained major media attention since the “logo mania” of the 1980s and the subsequent rise of fast fashion, copying has been a primary concern for designers since the 19th century–most notably Paquin, Poiret, and Vionnet in the early 20th century–and the establishment of the system of couture.
If a garment is an important piece–something that is pushing fashion forward or capturing a moment in fashion history, such as parodies of designer or corporate logos by Brian Lichtenberg or Jeremy Scott, or a Zara knockoff of a Celine coat–then FIT will collect that knockoff, copy, or parody. These “captured moments” can then have a long life in the museum.
Licensed or unlicensed copies are not actively collected at FIT, and in the past the museum did get rid of counterfeits, as they were considered “inauthentic” and did not fit with the institutional mission of collecting garments of the highest quality. I became interested in licensed copies still present in the collection and wondered how extensive are the holdings. I began to observe that there are many different levels of authenticity present in these garments. Sometimes the word “copy” was embroidered into the label, as part of its manufacture, and other times it would be written on the label, likely by past FIT staff. When a label says “copy”, what exactly does that mean? This question led to the genesis of the exhibition.
JM: Once these garments are removed from the marketplace and are collected and on display in a museum, unable to be purchased and taken home, does this lessen their allure? Or does it heighten their appeal?
AE: The inclusion of copies in a museum collection elevates the counterfeit—they are handled with gloves and treated in the same manner as the original. But the real benefit lies in creating an interesting conversation with the display of copies and counterfeits. The exhibition isolates the object, and people can discuss and consider copies within an environment that is entirely different from experiencing them in the marketplace or on the street.
JM: I am very interested in what you have noted as “the gray areas in authenticity.” Pinning down what makes a garment authentic is sometimes elusive, and is often attributed to ultimate authorship, superior materials and craftsmanship, or corporate authority, for example–especially when the copy is duplicitous in nature. What is your favorite example of a “gray area” garment in the exhibition?
AE: “Gray area” garments confuse authenticity. The”diffusion” line, or the less expensive designer line, provides an interesting example. They can take the place of the counterfeiter and reach a new demographic. Some may believe that, for example, a Calvin Klein Jeans shirt is not a “real” Calvin Klein shirt. The exhibition examines three pairings of diffusion lines: Moschino and Cheap and Chic; Donna Karan and DKNY; and Missoni and Missoni for Target. We looked at material and construction and how closely they follow the original. With some of these diffusion pieces, one could assume without looking at the label that the garment is a direct knockoff of the higher-line designer piece.
JM: Being able to view originals and reproductions side-by-side is a unique and exciting opportunity, and encourages close, careful scrutiny of clothing–something that visitors may or may not do on a daily basis. Were there any particular challenges in presenting close-up and interior details to the audience that translate the differences or similarities from one garment to another in the exhibition space? How were up-close views and comparisons prepared and achieved for the visitor?
AE: Capturing details in a way that would be engaging, intuitive, and visual without being overwhelming was a huge, huge challenge.I wanted to show all the different levels of a counterfeit, but didn’t want to install a long, continuous row of cases in the galleries. Working with a team of conservators, exhibit preparators, photographers, and technology development staff, we decided on a “cabinet of curiosities”-type of display for accessories that would include both still and interactive photos of the original and counterfeit side-by-side,with my notes on similarities and differences digitally transcribed onto the images. A secured iPad on a stand in front of the cases contains very high-resolution photos on which the visitor can zoom in and explore. A video showing multiple interior details was created for the “poster ladies”–the original and copy Chanel suits–that completely explains the exhibition. There were so many interior details of other garments and accessories that I wanted to capture and show, but there was not enough time and resources. Images of all labels are displayed, and are important visuals for reminding the general public and students alike not to take a label at face value, and to encourage good research skills.
JM: Reproductions or reinterpretations are a familiar component of the process of costume design for film, theater, or dance–and fashion design as well–where designers can revisit and reinterpret earlier work, both their own and the work of others. For example, at the Harry Ransom Center where I work, we have a reproduction costume that was transferred from the FIT collection: a recreation of a film costume by Barbara Matera, originally designed by Gordon Conway for the 1929 British science fiction film, High Treason. Is there anything that the copies in the exhibition can tell us about particularly creative perspectives or solutions to recreating a garment, or are the differences mainly practical, cost-saving measures or reflective of a marked difference in construction skill or materials?
AE: Copies can be made for a variety of reasons and can have different benefits. There is the Claire McCardell “monastic dress”–a very popular simple shift that was replicated through licensed copies–which was also reproduced for a McCardell exhibition at FIT in the 1990s, and is the example in the FIT collection. Copies of Charles James’s garments can also be good for study, when the originals are too fragile or complex to handle.
A good example of the quality of couture copies can be found in the work of Stella Haninia. Haninia worked in the custom couture salon at I. Magnin department store, and had come there from Bergdorf Goodman. The few sources I was able to locate on Haninia noted that she was known for great copies and loved to sew everything by hand. I was a bit skeptical about the extensive hand-sewing–could this be true? Examination of a copy of a Dior gray bodice and skirt with belt revealed that the pieces contained only a few machine stitches and had incredible layers of pleating in the skirt. I was amazed and shocked–the copy completely defied and exceeded my expectations.
Another favorite piece is a jacket by Dapper Dan. His reinterpretations of luxury logos just keep telling me things–there are so many levels of authenticity to a Dapper Dan garment. His insistence on and pursuance of high-quality materials led him to work with a Japanese textile company to make sure the colors on the leather wouldn’t bleed. The jacket in the exhibition demonstrates what Dapper Dan described as taking “street looks and bring[ing] them up to the highest level of luxury.” The shawl-collared double-breasted jacket, fashioned from leather printed with the MCM logo, creates a completely new product. Very few of Dapper Dan’s early pieces are still in existence, and FIT is the only known museum to have one in its collection.
Many thanks to Ariele Elia for her time and insights. Faking It: Originals, Copies, and Counterfeits is showing at The Museum at FIT through April 25.
Top image credit: (left) Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, day suit, wool bouclé, 1966, France, gift of Eleanor K. Graham, 73.82.1; (right): Licensed copy of a Chanel, day suit, wool bouclé, c. 1967, USA, Gift of Ruth L. Peskin, 78.179.4, The Museum at FIT.
Second image credit: Unlicensed copy of Madeleine Vionnet’s “Little Horses” dress, rayon crepe, black and gold seed beads, c. 1925, USA, gift of Mrs. J. Mirsky, 76.125.1, The Museum at FIT.
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.
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.
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
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’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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’s11 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
“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.”
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.
While I agree that the most successful aspects of the exhibition are those that are more personal, 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. 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.
I had fully intended to write up a review of the Hollywood Costumeexhibition, 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 videoto whet your appetites. This exhibition is nothing short of amazing and I look forward to sharing my review with you soon!
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
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, 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
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.