I thought I would start my first UK based bi-weekly contribution with a review of Bath Fashion Museum, one of the most significant dress collections in the country. However, there is a twist. My visit took place in the last week of 2013, in an effort to catch a final glimpse of the museum’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations. Described as one of the top 10 fashion collections in the world, I had previously overlooked this museum in my dress and museum education pursuits. I discovered that Bath Fashion Museum has a collection of approximately 80,000 objects compared to 75,000 within the Fashion and Textile Collections at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. To have not noticed the potential of Bath’s offerings is in part due to being a self-confessed citycentric Londoner.
So in an effort to address this oversight, I hope to spend my time with Worn Through bringing you news of more regional events and exhibitions. The visit to Bath Fashion Museum did not disappoint and I can only stress how much it is worth leaving the capital to visit this extensive and thoughtfully exhibited collection.
According to their website, the museum opened in 23 May 1963 as the Museum of Costume and was founded by Doris Langley Moore, an enthusiastic scholar and avid collector of dress. Moore is notable for her interest in fashionable dress as a social and historical practice, based upon detailed object observation and research. According to Dr Lou Taylor, Moore challenged the more psychological, theoretical approach favoured by her contemporaries such as James Laver and Chris Cunnington.
As the presenter of a television series produced by the BBC entitled Men, Women and Clothes, broadcast in April 1957, most of the garments featured were from her private collection then housed in Eridge Castle, Sussex. This series is fascinating viewing for anyone interested in fashion history and theory. Moore’s deep, heavily enunciated narration is hypnotic listening while the attempt to visualise and explain historical changes in dress highly innovative for the time. The decision to use real people in period dress, although considered unacceptable today due to the damage caused to the garments, vividly brings the timeline of fashionable dress to life.
Once the collection was permanently based at Bath and opened to the public, Moore continued to make sure that displays provided as much contextual information as possible, ensuring mannequins were realistically styled in accordance with the particular dress period.
Bath Fashion Museum can be found in the basement of the Assembly Rooms, a set of public rooms opened in 1771 for the purpose of Georgian entertainment. Situated in the upper part of the town centre, the Assembly Rooms is a pleasant 15-20 minute walk from the train station through the historic main streets, which nicely takes in both the Roman Baths and Bath Abbey. Once there, it is possible to see the rather sparse, although clearly splendid at the time, entertainment rooms upstairs before descending upon what is essentially an underground museum. A free audio guide is on offer and although I would recommend this, it was at times slightly unnecessary for those who perhaps prefer to read, rather than listen to, the information on display.
The visitor to the museum is taken on a tour of six key displays, as well as a hands-on area where both adults and children can try on reproduction historical dress such as crinolines, corsets, bonnets, top hats and sportswear. The museum’s website currently cites nine displays but three of these took place earlier in the year so were unavailable on my visit. The breadth of displays on offer in 2013 impressed me, bringing a dynamism to the visit that I think is missing from larger museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Introduction to the 50 Fabulous Frocks display
Champagne bottle fancy dress 1904
Before entering the first display, the visitor is presented with a single outfit at the bottom of the stairs. A fancy dress costume circa 1904, it is an attempt to imitate a bottle of champagne and on the website there is an image of it being worn by an unknown lady. It is a clever and fun introduction to the following display entitled 50 Fabulous Frocks, which is a celebration of the museum’s collection since it opened fifty years ago. It encapsulates an ethos where dress is valued across all sections of society, and is not just designer gowns and celebrity faces. It highlights how dressing up is a well established cultural practice, putting the body in praxis as we reflect upon why and by whom this particular costume was made. Lastly, the symbol of a champagne bottle evokes a celebratory mood, providing a soundtrack of popping corks, effervescent bubbles and raised voices exchanging notes on best fancy dress to accompany the visitor as they experience 50 Fabulous Frocks.
The display is a rich and varied experience, showcasing outfits from the collections that span over 300 years. I particularly liked the juxtaposition of an Ossie Clark floor length dress back to back with a 1930s evening gown. Not only are there fantastic examples of everyday dress, such as a 1940s housecoat where each printed polka dot has been individually quilted to give the whole garment a 3D appearance or the embroidered coat made by an unknown art student, the information labels for each outfit also nicely evoke the social, cultural and economic contexts while avoiding being too academic.
There is an eclectic mix of mannequins to reflect fifty years of displaying fashion. This was an interesting device as it made subtle reference to the history of the museum, again without being overly didactic. I would love to see an exhibition here in the future that focused upon their wonderful collection of mannequins, especially as Moore was known for paying close attention to this detail. Labels for the garments were on the surrounding walls while the objects were displayed in two large cases inaccessible from all sides, which meant much walking back and forth. On the one hand, this almost deterred the visitor from reading about each outfit while on the other, it could have engaged more deeply as they had to actively take control of their own learning by matching up the label with the outfit. In doing so, the visitors could put together their own story of the collection’s highlights.
Interesting choice of mannequins – there were a few items of menswear also in the display!
Zandra Rhodes outfit
Following on from this display is 17th Century Gloves, which is small and first opened in 2007 when the museum changed its name to Bath Fashion Museum. It features some of the rarest objects in the collection, with the presentation of 20 pairs of gloves that are over 400 years old. The labels make good use of questions as a way to frame each glove’s unique history. This helps to focus a visitor who may find it initially hard to engage with the significance of such specific objects.
After the gloves, the visitor is invited to view the Behind the Scenes display, which on reflection was a fascinating experience once I read that most visitors to the museum are tourists on the Bath historic site tour. Simply put, the display is focused on the changing fashions of women’s dress in the 1800s until the very early 1900s. However, what the curators have done is to place this chronology against the ‘working’ backdrop of the museum itself. Seven ceiling to floor glass vitrines provide a view onto the museum’s stores in the form of labelled boxes and containers stacked up against interior walls, seen behind the mannequins in the foreground. They are further supported by a cast of references from literature, letters, diaries, magazines and advice manuals from the period.
In her essay Staging Royal London in London: From Punk to Blair, Fiona Henderson suggests that the tourist gaze often seeks out alternative experiences in an effort to uncover the authenticity of a particular place. By illustrating a historical period with these ‘behind the scenes’ snapshots that present the museum as a place of work, the display offers the average Bath tourist a potential new cultural geography of the area. However, this attempt to peel back the official layers of a museum exhibition relies on the display being a performance, which is perhaps demonstrated by the absence of doors or space within the vitrines for people to work with the objects.
A glimpse of Bath’s fashion archive through the vitrine
Leaving the Behind the Scenes display, the visitor is guided through two displays, the permanent 20th Century Fashion and Glamour, a temporary exhibition celebrating women’s evening wear over the last 100 years. What I liked here was how the labels made suggestions about who might wear similar outfits to those on display. For example, a 1920s coat was labelled with the following: ‘Think…Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald (1925)’ This encourages the visitor to culturally place the garment, inviting him/her to survey one’s own memory for relevant references.
- Models from the 20th century gallery – was particularly drawn to this mannequin in motion!
The final display is Dress of the Year, which is an interesting and appropriate end to the museum’s visit. Begun by Langley Moore when the museum opened in 1963, it is a collection of items chosen each year by someone to reflect the fashion of the preceding 12 months. Alongside a selection of previous candidates, including Mary Quant in 1963, Scott Crolla in 1985 and Versace in 2000, was the dress of the year for 2012. Chosen by Vanessa Friedman, Fashion Editor of the Financial Times, it is a Christian Dior ensemble designed by its newest designer Raf Simons. The outfit appropriately marks Simons debut at Dior by drawing attention to his cutting in half of the New Look silhouette to create a contemporary, arguably more androgynous look. Not only did I like the choice but I also loved the complex simplicity of this display idea. Dress of the Year is an invaluable archive and the museum’s website provides concise information about each year’s selection since the display’s inception. I look forward to finding out what Susie Lau, the well established fashion blogger, will choose to represent 2013 in March this year.
The complete list since 1963
Dress of the Year 2012 – Raf Simons for Dior
Special mention must be made about a huge suggestion board within the museum for other relevant dress collections and exhibitions, where I spent a good amount of time reading all the postcards. I came away with a great inventory and alongside a list made by the Faculty of Arts at the University of Brighton for dress collections in the southern areas of England this will now form the basis for my future excursions. I would also love to hear about more events taking place across the UK, especially in the Northern regions, so please do email me at email@example.com or add it to the comments below.
Visitor’s suggestions – brilliant!
As I mentioned in my first book review for Worn Through, I believe the recreation of historical garments is a useful way to get closer to the study of dress, especially as museums tighten their research policies. Both the making and the wearing are direct and physical interactions with the experience of historical clothing, if imperfect for reasons you can read in that first post. Jill Salen, who has written a series of books that instruct on re-creating extant garments from museum collections, takes painstaking patterns from these garments in the fashion of Janet Arnold; the patterns are laid out on a graph with minimal instruction but awesome detail. While providing the intellectual material to recreate the garments, the books of Salen and Arnold as well as the classics of Norah Waugh and the new classics of Jenny Tiramani provide a material culture context for the field. Even if you’re not a seamstress, it is fascinating, as well as helpful, to see how all the pieces fit together (or at least what they look like year by year).
Batsford, which published Salen’s books, has an expanding library of pattern books that help the vintage lover, the renaissance fairey, and the costumer re-create their desired clothing from the 16th century through the 1980s (!). The approach of each book is as unique as the writer, and I will caution that the quality and usefulness varies. I recently received two books from Batsford, and Vintage: Dress Patterns of the 20th Century by Anne Tyrrell is one of the less useful of the many I’ve had the chance to peruse as both costumer and reviewer. It provides very basic patterns and information that require a high level of skill to carry out, and patchy information. I can’t imagine why anyone would go to all the trouble to scale up, alter, and draw patterns from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s when more interesting designs from those decades in a wider range of sizes are frustratingly plentiful in thrift stores and online? It’s even easy to buy reproduced 1920s and 1930s patterns on Etsy, for example. The measurements on which all Tyrrell’s patterns are based, 34-26-36, seem a bit on the small side for a book that should cater to the “average” woman in the 2010s; I’m within the zone of average and would have to up those measurements by 3-6 inches. With its introductory/overview tone, I suppose the target reader would be an accomplished seamstress with mysteriously little access to or prior knowledge of vintage patterns.
Creating Historical Clothes, on the other hand, contains much of the same information I learned in Cutting and Draping at NYU. A comprehensive but compact sewing course is offered here, again not for the beginner but rich and instructive. It assumes the reader will be logical and have experience sewing and maybe some experience constructing their own patterns. The format is 2-D, paper drafting; there is not a lot of information about fitting toiles and making consequent adjustments to the pattern. The best way to gain those skills is through empirical practice.
Detail from page 156 of “Creating Historical Costume” by Elizabeth Friendship, 2013.
The author, Elizabeth Friendship, acknowledges the excellent resources that predate her work, but notes rightfully that many of the exacting patterns taken from extant garments are limited and limiting, as they only depict one or two styles of each selected time period. Friendship’s pattern book takes a different tack, offering foundational patterns intended for the costumer and costume student that can then be altered, enhanced, and finished according to a storyboard and research. The title is telling: this book is all about creating, less about historical research. The patterns are probably “accurate”–we don’t get a finished view, or even an intended view, as the patterns are clean canvasses for the user’s creativity–but they are not intended to be strict re-creations of historic garments. They will give the look, and probably generally the feel when made of the “right” fabric and worn with the correct underclothes.
Chapter title page from “Creating Historical Costume” by Elizabeth Friendship, 2013.
The 16th-19th centuries are addressed in separate chapters, and the introductions offer three pages of text as well as relevant contemporary paintings and fashion plates. Some individual patterns also include a painting for reference, in case you need a reminder of how finely Watteau painted the “sack-back” gown you are hoping to construct or just how wide 1860s skirts could grow.
Detail from p.84 of “Creating Historical Clothing” by Elizabeth Friendship, 2013.
Included is a short list of visual resources, such as Gheeraerts the Younger, van Dyck, Ter Borch, and le Clerc for the seventeenth century, and a glossary of terms specific to that period. Friendship is also careful to suggest further research in the notes for some patterns, such as for the “Corset 1730-1740.” She asserts that her pattern is “a simplified version of the corsets of the period. If a more authentic corset is required, consult a specialist book.” (134)  With extensive diagramming and notes, the instructions are encouraging.
Diagram about “Taking Measurements” (p.13) from “Creating Historical Clothing” by Elizabeth Friendship, 2013.
The book’s introduction offers a wealth of guidance, from measurement charts and a diagram on where to take them to historical stitches and even how to calculate the proper dimensions of a sleeve cap. Next are a slew of basic patterns: bodice and various sleeves, basic skirts and trousers (there are no trousers in this book), as well as how to move darts, making strapless and low-cut bodices, how to adjust for a large bust, and more. Which crash course is followed by 150 pages of patterns and information. NB: only women’s dress is represented here; for men’s see Further Resources.
Detail from “Creating Historical Clothing” by Elizabeth Friendship, 2013.
Having the basic drafting instructions in the same book makes for easy reference, and I suggest reading them carefully before beginning, perhaps more than once. The diagrams are well-marked and fascinating, but may require an eye used to looking at drafted patterns and pieces.
Is this relevant for fashion historians? If you’re interested in the evolution of, say, the bodice throughout the history of Western Fashion, this is an interesting study. All of the patterns are based on a classic sloper, or bodice, and creating a pointed front or an intricately pieced back will give the practitioner a practical knowledge. And again, the sensory, experiential knowledge that comes from having made and/or worn such a garment can be useful. As mentioned above, this book assumes additional research will be conducted on the time period, and Friendship offers a short bibliography.
Detail from page 174 of “Creating Historical Costume” by Elizabeth Friendship, 2013.
Creating Historical Clothes is an excellent resource for the “students and teachers of costume and costume makers” the author identified in the introduction; had it come out ten years earlier it would have been in my personal library as a costume design undergrad. An accomplished costume designer herself, Friendship is said to have a “unique method of drafting patterns,” presumably what we are taught in the book. The fashion historian interested in the material cultural aspects of dress (like me) will also benefit from the opportunity to think about the construction of historic dress from a piece-by-piece perspective. I prefer documented extant garments, which serves a more direct research purpose, but Creating Historical Clothes is a detailed and modern resource for understanding and making historical garments.
 May we suggest Jill Salen’s Corsets and Waugh’s Corsets and Crinolines?
Lead Image Credit: cover of Creating Historical Clothes by Elizabeth Friendship. London: Batsford, 2013.
Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion: The cut and construction of patterns for men and women, 1560-1620. London: Macmillan, 1985.
Arnold, Janet. Englishwomen’s dresses and their construction, 1660-1860. London: Macmillan, 1977.
Arnold, Janet. Englishwomen’s dresses and their construction, 1860-1940. London: Macmillan, 1993.
Arnold, Janet and Jenny Tiramani. Patterns of Fashion 4. Hollywood, CA: Quite Specific Media Group, 2008.
Friendship, Elizabeth. Pattern Cutting for Men’s Costume. London: Methuen Drama, 2008.
Mikhaila, Ninya and Jane Malcolm-Davies. The Tudor Tailor. London: Batsford, 2006.
Salen, Jill. Corsets: Historical Patterns and Techniques. London, Batsford: 2008.
Salen, Jill. Vintage Swimwear: Historical Patterns and Techniques. London: Batsford, 2013.
Tiramani, Jenny et al. Seventeenth-century women’s dress patterns. London: V&A Publishing, 2011.
Tiramani, Jenny and Susan North. Seventeenth-century women’s dress patterns 2. London, V&A Publishing, 2012.
Waugh, Norah. Corsets and Crinolines. London: Routledge, 2004 .
Waugh, Norah. The Cut of Men’s Clothes: 1600-1900. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1964.
Waugh, Norah. The Cut of Women’s Clothes: 1600-1930. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1974.
Today, to enter 2014 with a light spirit, I have to present a ‘mea culpa’! I often despise the lack of well coordinated and thorough online resources when it comes to French fashion and costume museums as I harshly did in my post about the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent Archives, arguing the Musée Galliera did not even have a proper website. Well, things have changed and I must admit I secretly imagined they have heard my many complaints…
Today, even though it is not pitch-perfect yet (but it’s a good start!), the Palais Galliera proposes an interesting and clear website on which, and that’s what I was mostly looking for, you can discover a few notable pieces from their rich collections. I know how prosperous and beautiful the museum’s storage rooms are and how I longed for this to happen. Of course, as I said: we’re only at the very start of a new movement, probably coinciding with the museum’s reopening, and only a little number of garments are pictured and documented but I’m glad nonetheless there’s a little something to eat.
I appreciate the minimalist and elegant aspect of the website that precisely narrates the story of the museum’s making, its history, its collections.
The Collections are organised within different categories: 18th Century Dress – 19th Century Costumes – Fashion of the first half of the 20th Century – Haute Couture – Contemporary Fashion – Undergarments – Accessories – Prints and Drawings – Photographies.
Each department is introduced by an engaging presentation that summarizes the key information that is to be known about the collection’s pieces. Simple and brief material, surely insufficient for researchers and professionals but an appropriate highlight for the public in general whom is given an insight on what happens behind the curtains.
Here are a few of my favourite works I explored on the museum’s website:
Each piece is precisely described and its story, when known, clearly told. I appreciate we are given the information on how the object made it into the collections.
Casaquin – 1730-1740
Orange Silk, Blue Lining, Gilded Silver Lace
Belonged to a member of the house of Ligne.
Coat – 1813
Red Silk Velvet, Silver Lamé Thread, Sequins and Cannetilles Embroidery
Belonged to Marshal Bertrand, under Napoleon.
An exquisite example of fashion meets art meets history:
Fragonard Evening Dress – Vivienne Westwood – SS 1991
I love that the Palais Galliera chose to present most objects with photographies taken within the storage rooms. It brings a je-ne-sais-quoi industrial feel. There is something very aesthetic in placing their stunning and delicate garments against a modernist steel background. It’s a radical choice that places the dress very far from their original contexts and use while it however installs them firmly within their present context, that is the museum and its ghostly yet romantic storage rooms.
Waistcoat over a giant Singlet – Maison Martin Margiela – SS 1990
The collections’ photographies, especially for the contemporary garments, are the result of a veritable mise-en-scène. Some pieces are even shown against the Palais’ exterior colonnade. A seductive decision that roots the objects in a playful and dramatic environment just like a fashion photo shoot would do with models. I wrote, above, that the storage room images placed the garments as museum objects, when the images taken outside or within other spaces of the Palais seem to bring them to life again. These online resources’ photographies themselves set the debate on conserved dress as ‘living’ fashion item or/and ‘dead’ museum object.
I have, unfortunately, not found the name of the photograph (s) who have worked on this project. I would have loved to as I really love the result…and they deserve to be quoted.
Drawing Maison Jacques Heim – AW 1959-1960
The online resources also provide the public with documentation such as drawings and contextual photographies.
Photography by Otto – Countess Greffuhle – 1887
The presence of museums and their collections online are to me essential: they are an indispensable tool to professionals and bring art into the living rooms of those who don’t or cannot pay a visit to their real-life spaces. I highly appreciate that French museums are (finally!) making an effort. We haven’t reached the standards of a MET or a V&A yet but I do hope this is only the very beginning of a profound reflection and questioning.
Do you agree? Do you think online resources are as important as I tend to think? Do you use them much?
This guest post comes courtesy of Heidi Brevik-Zender, one of the two recipients of Worn Through’s first research award. Heidi is Assistant Professor of French and Comparative Literature at UC Riverside where she directs the French Program. Her research interests are in French literature and culture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with an emphasis on the study of sartorial fashion, gender, aesthetics and issues of modernity. Publications include works on literary and pictorial representations of fashion in works by Zola, Maupassant, and Rachilde; films by Sofia Coppola and Catherine Breillat; and the television series Mad Men.
The deadline for Worn Through’s second annual research award has been announced. Please check here for details on the award and selection process.
I was delighted to be named co-winner (with Elizabeth Way) of the inaugural Worn Through Research Award. The award was used to offset reproduction fees for an image that will be included in my book entitled Fashioning Spaces: Mode and Modernity in Late-Nineteenth-Century Paris. The book will be available from University of Toronto Press in 2014.
Fashioning Spaces studies literature, paintings, and period garments produced in Paris from 1870 to 1900. It argues that the chroniclers of Parisian modernity – writers like Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant as well as artists like Edgar Degas and Gustave Caillebotte – depicted key moments of fashion not exclusively in public settings but rather in intermediate locations where the exterior and spectacular meet interiority and intimacy. How does this point of view represent a new way to think about cities and fashion and how the two are connected?
To work toward an answer we might start by thinking about fashionable areas of Paris in the late nineteenth century. Our thoughts likely go to boulevards, parks, theaters, department stores, modern wrought-iron buildings, and racetracks. Studying fashion’s role in these locations makes sense, because during this period this is where people went wearing their finest garments, to view how others wore their wealth, class, and expressed themselves through clothing while simultaneously finding an audience for their own sartorial display. We associate wide avenues, manicured city gardens, and cosmopolitan train stations with Parisian modernity in part through our exposure to them in well-known paintings by Impressionists, such as Degas, Claude Monet, Mary Cassatt, or Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Also, many of these spectacular locations, such as the Tuileries gardens, the Garnier opera house, and, of course, the Eiffel Tower, still exist in the French capital today.
However, what I uncovered in my research is that, especially in literature but also in visual art, those authors and artists who were living in Paris in the late decades of the nineteenth century were actually quite concerned with other kinds of spaces, including more private, liminal and sometimes difficult to define areas of the cityscape. In fact, there was such an abundance of these locations in novels, short stories, and images that I decided to focus on a manageable cross section of them. I chose the three spaces that I thought were the most compelling, which were staircases, waiting rooms, and fashion ateliers.
This brings us to the Worn Through Research award. The image in my book that the award has funded is the painting Hush! by the French painter James Tissot:
Hush! (1875), James Tissot (1836-1902),
Oil on canvas
Manchester Art Gallery
I selected Tissot’s painting Hush! for the first image in my book because I think it has interesting things to say about relationships between fashion and space in this period. As we can see, clothing is clearly one of the most important features of this stylish late-century salon. As viewers, our attention might first be drawn to the bright yellow-and-white gown of the violinist in the heart of the composition, or perhaps to the massive fan and flounced layers of the skirt worn by the women in the left foreground. The black tulle of the central figure spills dramatically across the floor, and the vaguely Eastern “Oriental” garments worn by the male spectators in the back right provide the touch of exoticism that was so in vogue in nineteenth-century Europe. Initially we sense that the main salon is where all of the fashion “action” is taking place; here, the well dressed have come to see and be seen in their most eye-catching outfits.
And yet, there is another space of interest in the painting. In Fashioning Spaces I call attention to the upper-left section of the composition, which depicts a staircase filled with overflow concertgoers. The staircase seems to be outside the setting of the painting – literally in another room – but it is also connected to the concert space through echoes in clothing items that lead us out the doorway and up the curve of the ornate iron banister. Once we are aware of them, the elegantly dressed spectators located in the stairwell might capture our interest even more than the audience in the salon. They represent subversions of proper bourgeois behavior through their flaunting of rules – they sit on stairs, not chairs! They are seen but not completely knowable, in view but just beyond the sanctioned space of the concert room. Concentrating on the staircase couple on the furthest left, we wonder what they might be saying to one other, just out of earshot. The painting’s intrigue is as much on the staircase as it is in the “main” space of the composition.
Fashioning Spaces is about focusing on unexpected intersections of space and fashion such as those in Tissot’s canvas. I examine tensions surrounding gender expression in literature by the female writer Rachilde, an author who created scandalous cross-dressing heroines, emancipated bloomer-wearing New Women, and sharply tailored women horse-riders known as amazones. The book studies the surprising subtext of national trauma in Emile Zola’s department-store novel Au Bonheur des dames and issues of class represented by the chic social climbers in Guy de Maupassant’s short stories and novel Bel-Ami. Alongside paintings, such as those depicting powerful and elegant dandies by Gustave Caillebotte, I include analyses of period garments, like the robe à transformation, a dress style that grew to heights of popularity in the nineteenth century because it accorded women a measure of flexibility by allowing them to change from daytime dress to eveningwear in record time.
It is an exciting time to be working on nineteenth-century French fashion because a great deal of insightful scholarship from a variety of academic disciplines has appeared in recent years. Here are some of the books that have been most useful to me, listed in chronological order starting with the newest titles:
Having It All in the Belle Epoque: How French Women’s Magazines Invented the Modern Woman by Rachel Mesch (Stanford University Press, 2013) http://www.sup.org/book.cgi?id=22400
Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity edited by Gloria Groom (Yale University Press, 2012) http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300184518
Changing France: Literature and Material Culture in the Second Empire by Anne Green (Anthem Press, 2011) http://www.anthempress.com/changing-france-pb
Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France by Susan Hiner (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010) http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/14733.html
The Places and Spaces of Fashion, 1800-1907 edited by John Potvin (New York: Routledge, 2009) http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415873826/
Classic Chic: Music, Fashion and Modernism by Mary E. Davis (University of California Press, 2008) http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520256217
Sheer Presence: The Veil in Manet’s Paris by Marni Reva Kessler (University of Minnesota Press, 2006) http://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/sheer-presence
Couture Culture: A Study in Modern Art and Fashion by Nancy J. Troy (The MIT Press, 2002) http://mitpress2.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=9101
Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity by Ulrich Lehmann (The MIT Press, 2000) http://mitpress2.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=4261
Two classic studies include:
Paris Fashion: A Cultural History by Valerie Steele (Oxford University Press, 1988; reprinted by Berg in 1998 and 2006)
Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity by Elizabeth Wilson (Virago Press, 1985; reprinted by I.B. Tauris in 2003 and 2005)
I do not know much about the golden age of Hollywood. I know names when they are written or said, and I have seen plenty of classic Hollywood films provided they star Myrna Loy and William Powell, or Hepburn and Tracy, among a very few others. So it was not until Turner Classic Movies asked Deborah Nadoolman Landis to host their Friday Night Spotlight all this month focusing on Hollywood Costume that I finally saw such legendary performers as Marlene Dietrich and Claudette Colbert.
The Spotlight comes at an apropos time, with Ms Nadoolman Landis’s book, Hollywood Costume having just been published by Abrams (as many of you know, we gave away a copy two weeks ago), and the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Hollywood exhibition on display in Virginia until February.
Due to a family medical emergency and an error on my part setting up the DVR, I missed the second week of Ms Nadoolman Landis’s choices and introductions, and I must say I feel the loss. I watched and thoroughly enjoyed the first week more than I anticipated I would – I have even forbidden my family from removing any of the films from the DVR, not because I don’t already own Casablanca, but because watching it with Nadoolman Landis’s commentary is better.
I felt that Blonde Venus, while a not particularly good story or venue for Marlene Dietrich’s obvious talent, was an excellent introduction choice by Ms Nadoolman Landis to acquaint audiences with the work of Travis Banton. Banton’s designs were amazing in the way they were not obvious. Minor things, such as small tears in Dietrich’s clothes when her character had descended into destitution, enhanced the character, rather than distracted from it. However, I confess that for me the weak script made this film was a waste of both Banton’s and Dietrich’s talents.
Costume for Cleopatra, Cleopatra, 1934. Costume designer Travis Banton. The Collection of Motion. Picture Costume Design Larry McQueen.
Copyright: Victoria and Albert Museum
Far better was the second film, Cecil B. deMille’s Cleopatra of 1934. As Ms Nadoolman Landis pointed out in her introduction to the film, historic costumes always look like the time in which the film was made; hence the clear evidence to our eyes of the influence of 1930s, bias-cut evening gowns on Banton’s designs for Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra, as well as her attendants, and the women of Rome. And yet, in several places it was very clear that both Banton and deMille had done their research, as it takes great skill and artistry to transform historic images and garments into something that will appeal to a contemporary audience, immersing them in the world without distracting from the story. I did at some points wonder whether Colbert had to be carried on and off the set, the cut of many of the gowns was so severe, but it emphasized Colbert’s portrayal of the original femme fatale, rather than distracted.
It was also fascinating to see such a juxtaposition of Banton’s talents: contemporary and historical epic. The showing of both films emphasized Nadoolman Landis’s discussion of Travis Banton’s ability to create unique costumes not only for the actress – emphasizing her attributes and enhancing them – but subtley enhancing the story and the film’s general artistic aesthetic.
Deborah Nadoolman Landis’s next two choices also showcased the range and mastery of her second highlighted designer: Orry-Kelly. Her introduction to Casablanca allowed me to watch the film with new eyes. She discussed Kelly’s restrictions working during the fabric and clothing rationing of World War II, and the rejection by the director of some of Kelly’s initial designs because they were “too glamorous” for refugees on the run from the Gestapo. The next film, Auntie Mame, has become a new favourite of mine, largely because of the wonderful performance given by Rosalind Russell as the title character. And yet, and yet… without Deborah Nadoolman Landis’s introduction and discussion of the film, while I would have loved the costumes, I’m not sure I would have known to pay attention to the subtle ways in which they emphasized the character – or seen that Rosalind Russell was, as Nadoolman Landis said, in on the joke. I shall forever be enamoured of Auntie Mame’s blue turban with the blue feathers erupting from the top in the elevator. The contrast between the cotton creations Orry-Kelly made under wartime restrictions for Casablanca and the extravagant, beaded, jewel-toned masterpieces he made in 1958 for Auntie Mame were a wonderful way to showcase what a good designer can do both when he is working under strict rules, and the restraint he can show when the sky is the limit.
Costume for Irene Bullock, My Man Godfrey, 1936. Costume designers Travis Banton and Brymer. Gown and duster jacket designed by Travis Banton. The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design Larry McQueen.
Copyright: Victoria and Albert Museum
The value of Nadoolman Landis as a guide was felt when TCM then showed an additional two films – The Women and Anna Karenina, both costumed by Adrian – but not chosen by or discussed by her. I actually found myself disappointed because I know Adrian’s work well, and I had enjoyed seeing the work of designers who had previously been unknown to me. I also have a prejudice towards Dinner at Eight and the ‘goddess gown’ that made Adrian famous, but mostly it was the lack of knowledge behind the designer’s process that I had missed.
My only criticism was the lack of discussion of what the men wore. Humphrey Bogart’s trench coat and snap-brimmed fedora were mentioned briefly, but that was it. What about the suits for the young Patrick in Auntie Mame? I am aware that in the thirties, the male actors were left to purchase their own suits for their roles, but did they collaborate with the designers at all about what suits to wear in which scenes? And also, how long did this practice go on? There is also the fact that the absence of suits in Cleopatra means that Travis Banton designed all of the costumes in the film, why was there no discussion of their clothing in addition to the gowns Banton created for Claudette Colbert?
Overall, though, as someone with very little knowledge of the history of Hollywood costuming, the Friday Night Spotlight is almost like a mini-course in the subject. And a wonderful opportunity to expand my classic film repertoire.
Please share your thoughts below, and be sure to email me any events for the new year you would like to highlight!
Costume for Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett), Elizabeth: The Golden Age, 2007. Costume designer Alexandra Bryne.
Copyright: Victoria and Albert Museum
Colin McDowell is a writer whose work generally makes me feel like we’d get along swimmingly bemoaning this or that about the current Western fashion system of which he is very much a part and of which I am almost entirely on the outside. For example, in his Literary Companion to Fashion, the third sentence in his introduction reads,
Fashion suffers by being very much more interesting than those who follow it.
A fan of Oscar Wilde and Nancy Mitford, McDowell has a sharp tongue and a critical eye. His column for Business of Fashion reviews books and turns a sour note on the decadence and self-importance of the fashion world he has participated in for many decades. With twenty fashion books and countless articles and commentaries for various publications, McDowell would seem appropriately poised for another take on Fashion; he has taken the literary angle, the linguistic angle, a hyper-modern angle, and now: anatomical.
Pages from the introduction. Sans-serif text, sparse layout, various justifications. From “The Anatomy of Fashion” by Colin McDowell, 2013.
I was feeling a little haughty throughout the introduction to his book The Anatomy of Fashion, feeling like the material was all too familiar for a groundbreaking new approach–until I read the final paragraph:
Rather than being comprehensive, it is intended to highlight some of the more interesting and revealing facets of dress that are often overlooked. It is not a book written for the dress specialist or costume academic but, rather, a book for the general reader of any age who wishes to learn more about themselves and their fellows by how they dress. (11)
And I was a bit disappointed to find that I agree with him, disappointed that it is another introduction to dress history, reshuffled and presented body part by body part. A novel approach to the basic themes of the field, a lovely new coffeetable icebreaker, but an expensive investment for a new student, and a redundant one for the experienced.
The form and aesthetics are what set this book apart; that sounds like damning with faint praise, but I think they are savvy choices. Each chapter has its own graphic design and layout, but similar enough that they cohere. The middle section, The Body Anatomized–which happens to be the most immediately pleasing to me–is not unlike an image-heavy Tumblr feed with its secondary treatment of text. In the book, facing pages of sharp color photographs are augmented by a smaller, apricot-colored page bound in between with captions and a small descriptive text. Perhaps a more illustrious comparison would be to a museum exhibition, which also prizes the visual, and often comes with an accompanying but separate text.
But we’re getting out of order. The book is organized specifically: the science of anatomy traditionally breaks down the body into parts, systems, layers, and McDowell has done the same. Photography and the image are paramount in each chapter, with high resolution and all the glory of the original colors.
Detail of layout from “The Anatomy of Fashion” by Colin McDowell, 2013.
The first section, “The Body Unclothed,” has a somewhat misleading title. Separated into three sections itself, this small introductory chapter does the breakdown-anatomy part: skin and body adornment, materials and textures, color and pattern. Worn dress requires and consists of relationships between a human body and material of some sort; here McDowell addresses those separate parts. The prose is easy and reads quickly; it is a theory-free, fact-based overview of each of these categories, from clothing as protection to clothing as art. I was unhappily surprised at the lax attitude toward citing sources or giving proof for some of the more declarative sentences (or…anything at all).
McDowell only provides a select bibliography (263) and a vague “too many such sources for me to list” in the appendices (271). The picture credits are also disjointed and nominal, also banished to the appendices and in a confusing order that seems to only cover legal bases, unconcerned with the more human aspect of copyright. Does this disregard for intellectual/artistic property put at a disadvantage the laypersons whom this book was intended to inspire? On the other hand, a text arguably reads more smoothly without citations getting in the way, and its lack of those academic signifiers may appeal to a greater number of readers. He does, however, reference other sections of the book, which will lead readers interested in brides wearing garlands of fresh flowers dipped in scented water to the section “Romantic,” and those interested in leather as a protective material might be interested in “Armoured.”
Detail from “The Anatomy of Fashion” by Colin McDowell, 2013.
The text in “The Body Unclothed” is aligned in three skinny columns, a bit like reading a newspaper. Interspersed are lovely, colorful images, and germane quotations from authors and social commentators, such as Mark Twain, are inserted between them, the words justified perpendicularly to the main text. Skimming the surface of a deep lake, the text sculls smoothly from aniline dyes to Indonesian batik, swirls in the use of color in Youthquake designs, glides from the 15th century easily back to the twenty-first, over “black skin” in the fashion world:
Traditionally black skin did not often feature in the fashion world, and even now, despite the occasional high profile of models such as Iman, Naomi Campbell, or Tyson Beckford, it remains true that designers, investors, buyers and journalists are all equally unlikely to have darker skin. …The numbers remain relatively low but will rise, if only in acknowledgement that black people in most societies increasingly enjoy the wealth that enables them to be fashion consumers. (19)
These noncommittal declarative sentences are everywhere:
“White is, certainly in terms of widespread popularity, a relatively modern indulgence: the time and care needed to keep white garments clean were not available to most people until at least the twentieth century.” (41)
Have you heard that before? It’s a borderline truism in fashion history. But considering all readers, this is where you start with Fashion History, the basic facts–even if they are true tropes. At the same time, McDowell helps to enlighten readers about untrue tropes, for example describing briefly the pre-white history of the wedding dress:
The association of white with wedding dresses is a similarly artificial construct. Before 1840, when Queen Victoria set the fashion for white at her own wedding, brides had worn pretty much any colour they wanted. … Unless they were very rich, they wore frocks of ordinary fabrics and colours. (42)
Which is a good start.
This middle section, “The Body Anatomized,” structures its storytelling by body parts, from head to toe. It is very important to McDowell that we examine each part for its contribution to the whole, as opposed to taking a more common top/bottom, waistline-defined approach. In this work,
How we clothe the legs reflects different requirements than how we clothe the neck. The fleshy padding of the buttocks–with their associations both with sex and with bodily waste–is clearly very different from the hands and feet, which are among the most human of our characteristics. (46)
Detail from an introduction. From “The Anatomy of Fashion” by Colin McDowell, 2013.
The book is loaded with introductions; the book begins with one, as does each of the three major sections, printed on peach-colored paper to differentiate it from the main text. “The Body Anatomized” is further sectioned off into “Head to Waist” and “Hips to Feet,” each with its own dedicated introduction. This follows McDowell’s respect for each body part, giving equal attention. Once introduced, McDowell fans will recognize this section’s image-forward approach to this very visual field from his previous book Fashion Today, which exercised a similar technique. In The Anatomy of Fashion, it allows the reader to flip through the images or to get a little more information from the accompanying texts when an image strikes his or her fancy. The range of different time periods, styles of clothing and accessories, or type of body parts provide a nice juxtaposition that doesn’t conform to the easier chronological organization.
From the “Legs–Concealment + Display” section of “The Anatomy of Fashion” by Colin McDowell, 2013.
It’s engaging to see twenty different pictures of arms across time and space, and how they have changed shape, were depicted, create meaning. Legs, to take another example, are split into subcategories of:
- concealment + display
- skirt lengths
- skirt shapes
- and hosiery,
making for a varied, thorough, and sometimes pleasantly unexpected take on what have become a very visible part of our public worlds. As Don Lennon sings, “Everywhere I look I’m seeing bodies.” McDowell touches on this ubiquity, noting that Western people have rarely in our history been more exposed on a daily, public basis; no time like the present to refocus the study of fashion on its physical foundation.
The third section, “The Body Clothed,” collects the body parts into whole pieces again, but separates them into style categories, Activewear to Workwear (with Authority, Generic, and Pomp in between). McDowell begins this introduction with the classic query: “What do our clothes say about us?” When adding layers to our selves with clothing and making choices every morning (and/or evening), many of us can easily be categorized, even if it’s just “Generic.” The inclusion of New Romantic and exclusion of Hipster decries the book’s British viewpoint.
“Generic” clothing style categorized in “The Anatomy of the Body” by Colin McDowell, 2013.
This final section is a satisfying conclusion–everything is put back together again! Continuing the layering and meaning-finding from the first two sections, the history of each common (or once common) style is explained through one large image, two small, and a nice, full page of context. If we’re in an anatomical/biological mindset, these categories are like phyla: each is part of the same kingdom, but they can be easily identified by specific “body plans” (which is what one could call “getting dressed in the morning”). Once McDowell identified the material components, both inbred (skin) and applied (everything else), and identified sections of the body that could be used to classify these creatures, he could create a basic taxonomy of fashion cultures. A nice progression, but I wonder if we can use this scientific method to definitively answer the question of “why we dress the way we do?”
Detail of Chronology from “The Anatomy of Fashion” by Colin McDowell, 2013.
As a conclusion, McDowell leaves the reader with a 23-page chronology of over 42,000 years of bodies and dress, codifying the book’s role as an introductory textbook with a twist.
One more big gripe from my ivory tower: this is hardly is the “first book to reflect” that fashion is about the body, as the Phaidon website suggests. It may be the first to take up the general subject of fashion and dress from a body part-by-body part perspective, and I think it’s an effective and methodical approach. However, a short list: Joanne Entwhiste wrote about ‘situated bodily practice” in The Fashioned Body , and Body Dressing [Entwhistle and Elizabeth Wilson, eds, 2001] is part of the illustrious Dress, Body, Culture series by Bloomsbury. Another title in that series, The Clothed Body by Patrizia Calefato, dynamically addresses many of the themes McDowell touches upon. The Face of Fashion , written by Jennifer Craik, is also body-focused. There is even a Berg publication with the title The Anatomy of Fashion, from 2009, with a very similar structure outlined by author Susan J. Vincent (1). These are all theory books, and perhaps Phaidon was considering a strictly historic, non-fiction mirror image. But again, from an academic perspective, failing to include these body-focused books in the bibliography was an oversight.
I’d like to think (hope?) that McDowell would be disgruntled with the uncritical praise that many outlets gave his book (though obviously glad for the exposure). I would be hard-pressed to say that this book is “groundbreaking,” “breathtaking,” or, honestly, “in-depth.” Those words are probably better applied to the books mentioned above, or to McDowell’s Literary Companion or his Dictionary of Twentieth Century Fashion.
I really like the skeletal structure of the book, and this review turned into an examination of the structure more than the content because the former is what makes The Anatomy of Fashion worth picking up. There are just so many introductions to and overviews of this field, which is threatening to secure its reputation for shallowness if more writers (and publishing houses) don’t leap into its complicated depths. That said, I am sure that I have judged McDowell more vigorously because of his insider, experienced position in the field and his famously sharp tongue regarding the state of fashion exhibition in museums or fashion journalism.
The Anatomy of Fashion is absolutely worth reading if you are new to the field, or are a fashion-lover who has yet to read anything more than blog posts and designer biographies. It is definitely an engaging way of looking at the basics–if a little too basic, even for beginners–and its insistence on including dress instead of focusing on fashion is admirable.
But if you’re well-read in the field, maybe take it out of the library instead as a refresher course from a fresh perspective (at £60 ($100), it’s an investment). It is well-written and thus enjoyable to read, and we should all make a practice of revisiting the basics of our fields on a consistent basis. But since I carry home half my weight in fashion history books from the library every month, I need to be challenged by what I read. Here the “challenge” was the interesting structure and physical focus. It definitely bridges an aesthetic gap between art-fashion book and independent fashion magazine on the one hand and the academic essay on the other. Its savvy treatment of the material will appeal to many; especially, perhaps, a generation that most often consumes information in non-traditional, highly visual formats.
(1) I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t done enough internet searching and didn’t come up with this book until it was too late to read it for comparison; I deserve equal academic chastisement. Find a book review of Vincent’s Anatomy of Fashion on the blog of our former contributor Ingrid Mida here.
Lead image credit: Cover of The Anatomy of Fashion. By Colin McDowell. London: Phaidon, 2013.
Find more book reviews on Worn Through here!
Calefato, Patrizia. The Clothed Body. Oxford: Berg, 2004.
Craik, Jennifer. The Face of Fashion. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Entwistle, Joanne. The Fashioned Body. Oxford: Polity Press, 2000.
Entwistle, Joanne and Elizabeth Wilson. Body Dressing. Oxford: Berg, 2001.
McDowell, Colin. Fashion Today. London: Phaidon, 2000.
McDowell, Colin. McDowell’s Dictionary of Twentieth Century Fashion. New York: Prentice Hall, 1985.
McDowell, Colin. The Literary Companion to Fashion. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995.
Vincent, Susan J. The Anatomy of Fashion. Oxford: Berg, 2009.
Last week ended what had been 10 days of a highly publicised and successful exhibition, Miss Dior at the Grand Palais. To celebrate the 66th anniversary (I must admit I didn’t know these birthdays were meant to be celebrated!) of the perfume’s launch, the Dior house organised a major display combining historical review and contemporary art commissions. The entrance was free and the exhibition had gained such publicity that numerous visitors attended the show that was, I must say, quite beautiful.
Raf Simons – Dior Haute Couture 2012
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013
As I said, the interesting aspect of this exposition is that it handled patrimonial questions, presenting the perfume’s history and a few key moments concerning the fashion house, and it highlighted conceptual art installations specially commissioned near 15 contemporary feminine artists reinterpreting the Miss Dior codes.
Various themes organised the space. As an introduction, to somehow justify the reunion between art and fashion within this exhibition, the luxury house evoked Christian Dior’s first job as an art dealer and his strong friendship with some of the pre-war most major artists. Therefore, were presented art works by Bernard Buffet or Marc Chagall and personnel mementos, photographies, letters…that illustrated the future couturier’s close collaboration with the surrealist movement. This space was placed on an upper open floor overlooking the rest of the exhibition: it pushed the visitor to look upon the 15 contemporary art pieces with a different feeling, a sense of continuity…You could then come down a few steps into the exposition and explore what linked the past and the present.
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013
The exhibition also clearly illustrated the powerful influence of flowers on Christian Dior’s work, infused by his childhood Normandie mansion or his Provençal home. An influence illustrated by the couturier’s creations that resembled flower bouquets – objects such as garments and drawings helped demonstrate this effect- and epitomized by the perfume’s scent.
The perfume was imagined by Christian Dior as a loving declaration to his sister, Catherine who had miraculously come back from deportation after she had been arrested for her activities in the French resistance. Miss Dior was launched the same year as, the now iconic 1947 collection: the New Look was accompanied by a new, impertinent scent that depicted the young, beautiful and audacious women the couturier liked to surround himself with: from his assistants to seductive celebrities. The display at that point, presented images of legendary muses such as Marlène Dietrich or Elizabeth Taylor and more recent faces such as Marion Cotillard and Natalie Portman: that was the exhibition’s celebrity moment! Besides this informative and somewhat gently frivolous documentation stood a Bar tailored ensemble, an emblematic symbol of the New Look and, how lovely it looked.
Bar Ensemble, Dior 1947
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013
The scenography installed a pertinent dialogue between the house’s archives and contemporary art, the present constantly making reference to the past. The visitor jumped from a 1950s René Gruau illustration to an installation by Ionna Vautrin, from the Bar garment to Sofia Coppola’s advertisement video: the display efficiently mingled history with a contemporary concept. The most stunning example was a delicate 1949 bustier dress by Christian Dior, entirely covered by precious pastel flowers confronted to Raf Simon’s 2012 version of the garment, which he turned into a profound black piece worn by Natalie Portman in the Miss Dior ad, all was united: patrimony, contemporary fashion, publicity and the celebrity factor.
Christian Dior, 1949
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013
Raf Simons for Dior, 2012
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013
The display was thus regularly punctuated by the art installations imagined by 15 feminine contemporary artists who had all created art works that refered to Miss Dior. Polly Apfelbaum was inspired by the perfume’s hound’s tooth motif to create a colourful carpet, Carole Benzaken reinterpreted the perfume’s bottle into a graceful glass sculpture surrounded by forest landscapes, Alyson Shotz worked on a digital rose and Joanna Vasconcelos designed a gigantic pink bow epitomizing the juvenile spirit of Miss Dior… just to cite a few.
I much appreciated the dialogues between these feminine artists and the perfume. They all managed to convey new questions, new concepts looking at women, the body, nature, history, patterns…A fruitful and complete collaboration.
Alyson Schotz – Infinite Rose, 2013
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013
Obviously, I could not end this article without raising THE question: was this an art display or just a perfect marketing concept? Well, I’d say: both! While visiting the space, you could not ignore that all this was an ode to Dior, an ode to a consumption object, an ode to a bottle of perfume. There was something quite disturbing when you really thought about it…All the panels, although they did provide historical information, did however insist on Miss Dior, the product and some sentences resembled press releases: ‘Her perfume is nothing else than Miss Dior, the one she wears with passion.’, ‘Miss Dior is an olfactory conversation that will continue all the house’s creations, from Diorissimo to J’Adore..’ You had to look at all this with much distance….
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013
However, let’s not just focus on this idea. Art and Fashion have been united for years, decades…it was considered fabulous when Elsa Schiaparelli would team up with Salvador Dali, Gabrielle Chanel with Jean Cocteau…Why should it disturb us today? Because our dear friend marketing has now taken over. We now look at art and fashion collaborations with a suspicious eye: brands obviously do this to gain respectability and as judicious communication tools. Yes, brands now use their patrimony to give sense and profoundness to their commercial concepts…But, why not? If this provides us, the public, with seductive campaigns and exhibitions: why complain?
It would be naive not to remark that the exhibition took place a few weeks before Christmas and its gifts’ shopping, to not consider the impact the show will have on the house’s image. It was definitely a seductive communication operation but how brilliantly coordinated it was! I surely think the Dior house actually clearly assumed that all this was a formidable publicity and I quite appreciate this honest assurance.
Maria Nepomuceno – Delilah, 2012-2013
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013
If I had only focused on the negative marketing aspects of the exposition, it would have clearly been a real shame for me to miss the beautiful archives the house exceptionally presented and the 15 installations produced by some of design and contemporary art major actors: all this for free! I preferred to please my eyes over controversy!
Marilyn Monroe, 1950.
As a former wardrobe intern at Plimoth Plantation, I can assert with the most expert certainty that the above is not traditional 1620s dress worn in any American colony. Working with the public at that museum is an exercise in patience, as a good portion of the interpreting done by front-line staff is damage control, dispelling seemingly indestructible forefather myths and attempting to build the visitor’s understanding of the difference between “the past” and “history.”
My internship there was a lesson in cultural and temporal relativity: what was commonly accepted as The Past in 1927–especially when it comes to dress–is probably not “accurate” or “authentic” or the Generally Agreed-Upon Past of 2007 (see also: “accurate” vs. “authentic” when re-creating clothing for a history museum). The beginnings of an interest in the history of the history of dress, how our synthesis of historic sources shapes our modern perceptions of fashion history.
An overwhelming number of Thanksgiving costumes (?) and portrayals still use these tropes: buckled shoes, ditto conical hat, wide white collar, head-to-toe black. You might recognize those from Dutch paintings such as:
“The Syndics of the Amsterdam Draper’s Guild” by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1662. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.
Did you know members of the Separatist faction of Mayflower passengers had sought refuge in the Netherlands before being swept onto the shores of what is now Massachusetts? Perhaps inspired by that fact, late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century portrayals of the “Pilgrims” may have picked up generic clothing details from seventeenth-century Dutch paintings and played on this clean, austere, puritanical aesthetic to create an idealized picture of the Europeans at Plimoth (who were not all Puritans, p.s.). This coincided with the renewed interest in the “first Thanksgiving” stirred up in the 1890s, and provided a sanitized vision of Our Ingenious, Freedom-loving Forefathers. A bit of transnational transcription, a lot of origin myth, a large pinch of wishful thinking.
“Thanksgiving Greeting” from 1916. In the Plimoth Plantation collections.
So why have these iconic, exaggerated, fabricated clothing details survived? Who cares, it’s Marilyn Monroe!
When you are out of your food coma, get thee to the library! And check these out:
Plimoth Plantation’s short history of Thanksgiving.
Gordon, Beverly. “Costumed Representations of Early America: A Gendered Portrayal, 1850-1940,” Dress 30 (2003): 3-20.
Gordon, Beverly. ”Spinning Wheels, Samplers and the Modern Priscilla: The Images and Paradoxes of Colonial Revival Needlework,” Winterthur Portfolio 33 Nos. 2/3 (Summer/Autumn 1998): 163-194.
Gordon, Beverly. ”Dressing the Colonial Past: Nineteenth Century New Englanders Look Back,” in Patricia Cunningham and Susan Lab, eds. Dress in American Culture. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993, pp. 109-139.
Vowell, Sara. The Wordy Shipmates. Riverhead Trade, 2009.
They gave him garments of servitude, which he imagined the candid cloak of the martyr
Oh naïve! Natively naïve! Fez and boots for his free domesticated feet…
He rids himself of his collar–his tie hides the sweat soaking his shirt–of his somber jacket.
He leans over a second plain saturated with fezzes and blood. (179)
From Léopold Senghor, “The Despair of a Free Volunteer”, cited in “Photography, Poetry, and the Dressed Bodies of Léopold Sédar Senghor” by Leslie Rabine.
Analysis of the life and work of a well-known Senegalese poet is one of the many observative approaches to the titular subject of African Dress. Offering the authority of a host of PhDs in African and dress-related subjects, this book offers a compendium of essays broad in scope and focused in nature. Arranged in four Parts, they begin under the rubric of “Dressed Bodies and Power,” move through “Material Culture, Visual Recognition and Display” and “Connecting Worlds Through Dress,” and finish with “Transculturated Bodies.” Of course, many could easily fall under more than one of these headings; as one authors notes, “clothing, after all, is complicated.” (77) In these sections you will find: the lightness and frivolity and deadly seriousness of colorful textiles that are local, imported, or both; politics; incarnations of the veil; military history; traditional and modern embroideries; colonialism; fashion photography; Obama; poetry; and travel. Lots of gender, some sexuality, very little on non-traditional gender identities or diverse sexualities, but the lack reflects the nature of the societies observed. Questions and conflict surrounding religious dress abound, as these are common and public topics in the featured countries.
Senegal is most often represented, along with Nigeria and Ghana; West Africa dominates the scholarship. While each of the essays is located in a specific city (or two), sartorial expression is a complicated construction, and ethnicities and religions that don’t conform to geographic boundaries often manifest as stronger influences than national identity. The figural, modern “Ghana Boy” embroidered tunics Victoria Rovine contrasts with the traditional, Islamic tilbi garments in Mali belong to a group of young men who define themselves more by travel, experiences, and age than by country of origin. Tina Mangieri’s work most explicitly studies this local/Islamic/Western collision felt by Swahili Muslim men who live in Kenya.
Typical opening pages of a chapter. From “African Dress,” 2013.
A strength of the book is its Afrocentric approach: fashion is defined in African terms, by Igbo and Ghanaian traditions. Editor Karen Tranberg Hansen, a well-known scholar of African dress, fashion, and domesticity, notes in her introduction:
When it comes to the study of dress practice in Africa, we are confronted by a widespread scholarly tendency that privileges Western exceptionalism and denies any non-Western agency in the development of fashion. (1)
She notes other concerns within the more general study of dress and fashion:
One is the trivialization of consumers’ interests in clothes, an antifashion tendency the devalues the significance of dress as a cultural and economic phenomenon…The second concern is the distinction between fashion in the West and the ‘traditional’ clothing of much of the rest of the world, unchanged for generations, drawn by scholars who attribute fashion’s origins to the development of the capitalist production system in the West. …A third concern arises from the lingering effects of the trickle-down theories that have restrained our understanding of the sources and currents of dress inspirations. (4-5)
Western-African ties, conflicts, and cultural influence rumble right beneath and often break the surface, unavoidable when studying contemporary dress issues in an increasingly global world. Western theorists such as Veblen, Barthes, and Simmel make their obligatory appearances, but the authors also adapt or manipulate these well-worn theories to fit non-western cultures, or reject the Western foundations for a more inclusive, global fashion history, as challenged by Hansen in the introduction. Kelly Kirby drops a range of fashion theory names in the introduction to her essay, “Bazin Riche in Dakar, Senegal: Altered Inception, Use, and Wear,” as she seeks to find a satisfactory definition of “dress” and “fashion”:
Following Hansen, I use the term dress in this chapter to be inclusive of both cloth and clothing. I also build upon Barnes and Eicher’s definition of dress as “an assemblage of body modifications and/or supplements displayed by a person in communicating with other human beings’. … I draw from Georg Simmel’s definition of fashion to make a final distinction between dress and fashion. Simmel suggests fashion is a ‘form of imitation and so of social equalization…The elite initiates a fashion and, when the mass imitates it in an effort to obliterate the external distinctions of class, abandons it for a newer mode’. Thus, according to Simmel, individuals have minimal freedom as adherents to fashion yet are liberated from having to make personal choices about what to wear. (64-65)
She later locates shortcomings in applying Simmel’s rich-first theory to her examination of the use of a cloth imbued with socially-constructed web of class, wealth, and display:
I suggest, however, that intent–intent of the observer, of the wearer, and the creator–must be considered as an important component that contributes to the augmented values related to the use and wear of bazin riche. In this context, then, what Simmel’s perspective on fashion lacks is recognition that no one, not even the elite can ‘pay’ for the gift of creativity. And therefore, rich or poor, ‘intent’ and the ability to execute it is not always contingent upon socioeconomic status. (73)
Are these old-school theorists relevant here? The first essay, “Dressing for Success: The Politically Performative Quality of an Igbo Woman’s Attire,” may be most successful in that endeavor; the rites, rituals, and performance Misty Bastian observed, experienced, and describes for the reader belong singularly to the town of Onitsha, in Nigeria. In this and many other chapters, the experiential real stands for itself and has no use for or intentional basis in Western theory. What is African fashion theory? Should, or could, it be established? Do we need a theoretical framework to understand each fashion system, and does the negation of existing models require the construction of one or many new?
The tone of most of the chapters skews toward the anthropological and academic; that is to say, probably most of interest to those already engaged in advancing their knowledge of the subject. The form of the book itself privileges the written word and includes, at maximum, three black-and-white photos and one color plate.
Color plate featuring commemorative Obama fabric; facing two black and white figures from a different article. From “African Dress,” 2013.
The series to which this book belongs, Dress, Body and Culture (Bloomsbury), features a few titles that encompass African fashion practices, some edited by contributors to African Dress. The format will be familiar to readers of that series, providing great research, ample citations, excellent bibliographies, and highly quotable writing, but is not quite enjoyable to read cover to cover. There is a lot of information here. Much like collections of short stories, these edited volumes of short, focused research allow the reader to choose which subjects are most applicable to one’s interests, and take the work on in smaller chunks. That said, the flow of the book is pleasantly intentional, as set out by Hansen in the introduction (6-9). It’s nice to read a chapter about the Senegalese notion of sañse (to dress up; a complete outfit (63)) and see the concept referenced in the following chapter on Mauritanian shabiba (85). There are a few gratuitous instances of academic buzzwords like “performative” and “unpack,” but this comes with the territory, and did not ultimately take away from the content.
African dress has lately been highlighted by the Western fashion press, most significantly Lagos and Nigerian Fashion. The Business of Fashion ran an article on November 5 about Morocco outpacing its neighboring countries in the fashion race (or…in attracting fashion chains, at least). Suzy Menkes chaired the “Promise of Africa” conference last year, on Worn Through here. Guaranty Trust Bank Lagos Fashion and Design Week happened last month, and The Financial Times Style section recently called Lagos a “global fashion hotspot.” While the authors in African Dress define fashion and dress in a unique, Afrocentric way, newspapers and magazines are combing these cities and fashion systems into the stream of catwalks, skinny models, and spiraling Seasons–privileging that Western construction of fashion. Lagos, in its success, is poised to become a metonym for African Fashion–perhaps to its benefit, like New York’s situation in America, although being the fashion capital of an entire continent is quite a different responsibility. While African fashion deserves more than an ethnographic or anthropological review of its fashion systems–it can be fun and frivolous too–the articles in this book successfully value the small details and the distinctions of each place.
As Hansen writes in the introduction, this book is unique and worthwhile because
it not only features scholars who enjoy exceptional access to sources close to public persona like Josephine Baker, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Malick Sidibé but also contributors who have experienced the trials and tribulations as well as the joys of conducting research on clothing in the context of everyday life in some of Africa’s most bustling cities. (6)
A generalist addition to the genre, it is an example to emerging scholars in African studies, anthropology, and dress history that will serve to educate on the “rising star” of Africa from a human perspective or to expand a research paper or inspire fieldwork. Good research practices, interesting subject matter, and logical, easy-to-read presentation are reasons enough to pick up this book. As a title, African Dress aspires to cover an extremely large landmass comprising many distinctive nations, ethnicities, and cultures; the content deftly continues to work toward defining that broad term by offering engaging individual stories, showing the average reader that African dress is more than kente cloth and postcolonial performance.
Lead Photo Credit: Cover of African Dress: Fashion, Agency, Performance edited by Karen Tranberg Hansen and D. Soyini Madison. Bloomsbury, 2013.
Find more book reviews on Worn Through here!
Craik, Jennifer. The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion. London: Routledge, 1993.
Eicher, Joanne B., Sandra Lee Evenson and Hazel A. Lutz. The Visible Self: Global Perspectives on Dress, Culture, and Society [3rd ed.]. New York: Fairchild Books, 2008.
Eicher, Joanne B. Dress and Ethnicity: Change Across Space and Time.
Gott, Suzanne and Kristyne Loughran. Contemporary African Fashion. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2010.
Hansen, Karen Tranberg. Salaula: The World of Secondhand Clothing and Zambia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Hansen, Karen Tranberg, ed. African Encounters with Domesticity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.
Hendrickson, Hildi. Clothing and Difference: Embodied Identities in Colonial and Post-Colonial Africa. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.
Maynard, Margaret. Dress and Globalisation. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2004.
Perani, Judith and Norma H. Wolff. Cloth, Dress and Art Patronage in Africa. Oxford: Berg, 1999.
And, obviously, dozens more.
After the Chloé. Attitudes exhibition (which I had the chance to work on), last year, the Palais de Tokyo, a Parisian contemporary art museum, continues its ‘Fashion Program’ with a new display dedicated to the French shoe brand, Roger Vivier.
View of the display.
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013.
Virgule, etc. Dans les pas de Roger Vivier (Comma, etc. In Roger Vivier’s footsteps) tells the story of the brand and honours its founder, from the 1930s to nowadays, with the help of about 140 objects curated by the Musée Galliera‘s director, Olivier Saillard. Most of the shoes come from the house’s very own patrimonial department enriched since 2002 and, particularly, with a large purchase, in 2011, during an auction sale. Some institutions have also lent artefacts: the Metropolitan Museum, the BATA Shoes Museum, the Galliera museum and the Romans Shoe museum that conserves Roger Vivier’s archives.
The display evokes a 19th century museum, a ‘cabinet de curiosités’, that presents its ‘exotic’ artefacts within archetypal glass cases, giving the impression of walking down the alleys of the Louvre museum. Rather than being presented following a chronological arrangements, Roger Vivier’s inspirations dictate the themes that organise the display, English painting, African Arts, Egyptian Department, Gallery of Post-impressionism…A nod to traditional museum’s topographies.
View of the display.
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013.
Each shoe is given an imaginary alternative name, borrowed from veritable art works, erasing boundaries between art and fashion, temporary display and cultural institution. A theme dear to the curator who refuses fashion exhibitions to be seen as something else than art exhibitions. Here, the function of the shoe is removed, remains an art piece with its very own narrative.
Why not treat these shoes as pieces of art when their designer himself would see them as sculptures? He invented new lines, new shapes that changed the face of shoe-making whilst he also gave much importance to adornments, relying on precious feathered décors, stones or embroideries made by the Lesage historical house. An inventor: he created the stiletto in 1954 and the comma-shaped heel (which the exhibition’s title refers to) in 1963. He took part in iconic historical events and cultural moments: drawing Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation shoes or Catherine Deneuve’s famous pumps for Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour film. Roger Vivier also collaborated with major couture houses, from Elsa Schiaparelli to Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior.
View of the display.
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013.
The scenography is quite simple and austere but I did appreciate this choice that enables the themes and the shoes to speak for themselves: no need to add anything more. Despite from a few collages and drawings by Roger Vivier and Bruno Frisoni, there are no interactive displays, no videos nor installations.
Olivier Saillard made the choice not to write any technical nor date informations on the labels accompanying the shoes in the cases, to prevent the visitor from giving too much importance to this practical data. Instead, he invites us to observe the shoe, to concentrate on its aesthetic and understand the inspiration behind…Difficult to make the difference between Roger Vivier’s designs (who died in 1998) and Bruno Frisoni’s creations who has taken over the house’s creative direction since 2002: it proves the continuity of the house’s history, something permanent in its aesthetic…However, no need to worry: you are given a booklet with all the precise informations you would like to know about the objects!
View of the display.
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013.
I do wonder, however, whether the hints within the themes and shoes’ titles may not bee a little too intellectual for the non-specialised visitor: would everyone get the fact that the scenography evokes a classical 19th century museological presentation? Are all the masterpieces’ titles acknowledged? Personally, I loved the idea but I’m not quite sure it is broad enough. And saying this, I wonder whether it is finally not a further form of education? Visitors, more than the shoe history, are also told about art movements and given names they may would want to know more about in the future…, no?
This exhibition could be a pure marketing exercise: a show about a particular brand proposed by this particular brand. However, because of Olivier Saillard’s strong and independent curatorial choices, the cultural and didactic feel of the display is, hopefully,what comes out most.
View of the display.
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013.
As a visitor, I always feel I can relate to shoe displays more easily than to clothing, probably because they are more accessible in terms of shapes and ‘wear’. Shoes ignore body shapes and sizes, they are more self-sufficient whilst they strongly tell the story of an era. There is something very personal and very universal at the same time with a shoe. And, that is why I find Olivier Saillard’s display so effective: each shoe communicates its sense of beauty and its technical approach of form while the thematic ensembles relate to universal inspirations, important art movements that place the shoes within a wider aesthetic discourse.
The exhibition runs until the 18th November at the Palais de Tokyo.
Fontanel, Sophie and Mouzat, Virginie. Roger Vivier. Paris: Rizzoli, 2013.
Melissa’s visit to the Bata Shoe Museum on this blog
Jenna’s interview of Shonagh Marshall for the Shoes for Show exhibition
Heather’s short history of Roger Vivier