Domestic Affairs: The Eighteenth Century meets Movie Costumes at the FIDM Museum

 

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It’s no secret that I love the FIDM Museum. This is not just because I have worked there. I loved the museum long before I worked there simply because of the quality exhibitions they produce. Their annual Art of Motion Picture Costuming exhibition and the ever-changing Helen Larson historic collection displays are no exception.

With the V&A’s Hollywood Costume having overlapped with the opening of this year’s Art of Motion Picture Costuming, I had wondered what was in store for me when I headed down to Los Angeles this weekend. I was, of course, not disappointed. There may have been some competition for costumes this year, but Michael Black is a master at finding them — especially those by FIDM alumi — after all this time and the museum staff put together a truly wonderful exhibition.

Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent costume, which you see above and below, opened the exhibition and set the tone for drama and fantasy that rather pervaded this year’s exhibition as it pervaded many of the 2014 films.

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As the exhibition is entitled The Art of Motion Picture Costume Design, opening with the Maleficent costumes was a perfect way to emphasize the artistry that goes into costume design. The dramatic silhouette of Angelina Jolie’s costume is of course the first thing you notice, but there is a intricate interplay of textures and fabric that draw you in closer and must have been wonderful to see on screen. The train on the gown, coupled with the collar and the sleeves don’t compete for attention but all combine to create a perfect garment for, I confess, my favourite Disney villain EVER. And this was not a case of emphasizing one character at the expense of the others.

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Above you see the costumes for not only the fairies, but Prince Philip (in hunting garb) and Princess Aurora when in hiding as Briar Rose. The mediaeval origins of the costume designs are clearly present, but adapted to create a fairy tale world in which dragons and griffins and sleeping curses exist. Having been disappointed before by costumes that turned out to be printed fabrics, it was delightful to see embroidered details on even the fairies’ aprons and gowns, and detailed trimmings on Philip’s hood — minor characters who still received the designer’s full attention.

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FIDM Museum’s skill at exhibition design was far more subtle even than the black on black details of Maleficent’s costume. It wasn’t until I’d been all the way through the exhibition that I realized how well the exhibits flowed from one film to the other, from one film genre to the other. Moving in a clockwise motion around the Maleficent display, you saw most of the other fantasy film costumes on display: Exodus, Dracula: Untold, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Night at the Museum. Oddly the biblical costumes for Exodus with their ancient Egyptian armor were the perfect segue into the fantastic interpretations of Turkish and Eastern European clothes found in Dracula.

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I loved the Egyptian gown above for its clear links to Fortuny. Even more interesting was the use of the alien villain, Ronan’s costume as a transition from the Eastern European aesthetic of Dracula into the pure SciFi of Guardians of the Galaxy — the similarity in lines between the Turkish armor from Dracula and Ronan’s armor would never have occurred to me had the two not been displayed. I found myself wondering what the Guardians of the Galaxy designer’s inspirations and research included, and what their design process was — exactly the purpose of the exhibition, to highlight the expertise and broad range of knowledge designers must have to draw upon when it comes to even designing for a “comic book” movie (albeit one I rather enjoyed).

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It was the next transition that I realized later was absolutely brilliant — it was so subtle that it was only as I flipped through my photos choosing which one I would use for this review that I noticed it. Moving again in a clockwise motion, we went from Guardians of the Galaxy to Birdman, which has its contemporary costumes, but also Michael Keaton’s ‘Birdman’ persona and its extravagant, feathered suit lurking in the background. This was the perfect transition from the purely fantastic movies we had begun with to the more contemporary or historical costumes that dominated this next section of the exhibition.

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This section was also the point at which I realized I really hadn’t seen many movies this year, because wonderful as the costumes were (Gone Girl, Get on Up, Step Up — the last costumed by a FIDM alumna) I hadn’t seen many of them.

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The next genre shift wasn’t as smooth as the Birdman transition, but it made sense in my head from an historical costuming perspective. Between the fantastic dance costumes from Step Up and the rather incredible costumes by Colleen Atwood from Into The Woods (possibly my absolute favourite Sondheim musical, and it starred Meryl Streep, need I say more?), was a display of costumes from Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby. This made sense in my head because upon seeing the purple dress Carey Mulligan wore as Daisy it became obvious that it wasn’t ruffled, they had simply sewn on little satin “tassels” if you will to simulate ruffles. A way to save fabric no doubt, but in combination with the menswear’s trouser legs being much to narrow for the time period, with Into the Woods costumes beyond it seemed to emphasize the fact that this was a fantasy version of the 1920s — and Fitzgerald’s novel, for that matter — rather than trying for any historical accuracy. Again, a juxtaposition that revealed aspects of the Great Gatsby costuming that would have escaped me otherwise.

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I will try not to spend too much time waxing rhapsodic about the small collection of Into the Woods costumes — perhaps it is Disney’s seemingly bottomless budgets, but their costumes always seem to actually be good quality rather than simply appearing good on screen — but I absolutely adored the fairy-tale mix of genres: The 1890s leg o’ mutton sleeves seemingly constructed out of feathers on Meryl Streep’s blue gown, and the adaptation of a seventeenth-century doublet into a rocker-cool leather jacket from Rapunzel’s prince were absolutely brilliant.

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The rest of the costumes seemed to rather mirror each other, Big Eyes (set in the 1950s and 1960s) next to the costumes from Jersey Boys, and directly across from them the costumes from Selma, those from The Theory of Everything down the way, with the wonderfully eccentric costumes from The Grand Budapest Hotel mixed in. This was a wonderful grouping because it showed the myriad ways in which a single era of clothing could be interpreted to fit a film’s aesthetic and tell a story.

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Also on display were the costumes from The Imitation Game — mixed into the 1960s smorgasbord you see above — and those from X-Men: Days of Future Past. The latter was what you saw as you moved from this main display space back into the opening room with the other fantasy and science fiction costumes — so again, an excellent transition out of historical interpretation into fantasy, especially since I understand that movie involves time travel back to the 1960s. The planning of this exhibition’s displays and layout is absolutely incredible.

This is born out by the fact that as you exit the Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition you see two sets of costumes from two British historical films: Belle and Mr Turner. The latter I have not yet seen (but very much want to), and the former I would not have seen if not for a wonderful podcast review over at Frock Flicks.

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Putting these two films together made absolute sense simply from the perspective of grouping the costumes together by genre; but when I tell you that these are the last sets of costumes you see before you round the corner to see the eighteenth-century historic clothing on display from the Helen Larson collection, it becomes apparent that this is also excellent exhibition design.

And this is where I get very, very excited. It’s not that I don’t love movie costumes, it’s just that I love historic garments that much more. In my own research I tend to focus on menswear which is something that does not often make it into exhibition displays — at High Style there wasn’t a single man’s item of clothing to be seen — so I was utterly delighted to see more menswear in this display than women’s clothing. This could just be because the men’s silhouettes were so much narrower for the time period and display space is at a premium in the Helen Larson collection gallery, but the FIDM Museum managed to create such a masterful display that it really captured the range of clothing worn by ladies and gentlemen of the eighteenth century.

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There were two full court suits, four waistcoats, and four coats for men; there were four gowns for women including robes à la française, anglaise and a robe volante. My mother had come with me to share the driving and was absolutely fascinated by the latter, especially since the tombstone explained that it was the transitional style that would eventually lead to the other styles on display. Through four gowns FIDM managed to convey the evolution of women’s eighteenth-century court attire. The unfortunate nature of the display space, though, was that since the backs of all but one of the gowns was emphasized it was nearly impossible to see the fronts of the gowns on the other three. I imagine mirrors would have amplified the light which would not have been good for the silk, but it still would have been lovely to see as close to a 365º view of the gowns as possible.

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I, naturally, was in raptures about the menswear. Here, too, there was a range of decades in menswear so you could see the breadth of choice that men once had when getting dressed in the morning before the “Great Masculine Renunciation” of color in clothing. I loved the contrast of the velvet court suit  with the bright coral silk suit opposite it on the platform. These two suits and the range of coats and waistcoats showed the various ways that menswear in the eighteenth century could be decorative. There might be embroidery, the fabric — as with the velvet suit (my personal favorite) — might be decoration enough, or you might have not only an exquisite fabric but appliqués and tassels as with the coral court suit.

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And to put the finishing touches, if you will, on the period — there were a number of accessories on display including a fan, a work bag, and two pairs of very elaborate (of course!) shoes.

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These two exhibitions have confirmed my belief that a visit to the FIDM Museum is always worth the trip.

The 23rd Annual Art of Motion Picture Costuming exhibition closes this Saturday, April 25, so get there while you can! Opulent Art: 18th-Century Dress from the Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection will be on display until July 4th.

Have you seen either of these exhibitions? What did you think? Do you have an exhibitions or events happening near you or at your institution that you would like to share with Worn Through’s readers? Feel free to leave a comment, or to email me the details!

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Under the London Fashion Umbrella: From the British Path

Emma is away for the month, so for her two April columns I’ll be digging around the British Pathé fashion reel archives.

To start, especially since racing season has begun, who could say no to a three-minute reel about the Queen’s hats?

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Book Review: Exhibiting Fashion: Before and After 1971

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,

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 [2004] 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.

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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.

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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). 

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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.

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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.

Sources referenced:

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.

All photos provided by the reviewer.

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Domestic Affairs: High Style in San Francisco

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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 Collection opened 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 exhibition. Through seven mannequins the exhibition 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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It was from here that the exhibition diverged into American fashion design and couture. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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From the Archives: The Great British Sewing Bee

Due to a bout of spring flu, here is my post from this time last year discussing the BBC’s The Great British Sewing Bee, which had then completed its second season.  The third season has just come to a close so it’s a nice time to reflect back!

‘I watched Bake Off and couldn’t believe how upset people got,’ Chinelo says. ‘Now I totally understand. At one point I couldn’t even thread a needle, my hands were shaking so much.’[1]

The statement above was made by Chinello, one of ten contestants taking part in a BBC television programme called The Great British Sewing Bee, currently on air here in the UK.  This second series succeeds the first in both size and grandeur.  While the first was set over four episodes and located in a Georgian building in the heart of Dalston, East London, this one contains eight episodes and places more contestants in a lofty but grander converted warehouse by the Thames, offering everyone panoramic views of the capital city at the front while at the back, there is an extensive, well stocked haberdashery at their disposal.

The Great British Sewing Bee invites the participants to take part in weekly sewing challenges, which finds them spending two days completing three tasks: make a basic pattern, customize a piece of ready made clothing and finally making their own pattern, which must fit to a live model.  Their efforts are judged not by an audience vote but by two authoritative figures, who in this case are a Woman’s Institute sewing teacher with more than forty years of experience teaching and a director of a successful tailoring company located in Savile Row, London.  A television host, whose fundamental role is to mediate between the novice participants and the expert judges on behalf of the viewer, also joins them.

Contestants on The Great British Sewing Bee, Series 2

Each week, the two judges decide which contestant must leave the competition, based upon their performance across the three set challenges.  The most concise and in-depth review of the programme can be found in The Daily Telegraph, where Kate Bussman highlights how the nature of television production creates much tension for the contestants as they are constantly required to stop their sewing for ongoing sound bites, camera shots and set pieces.

For me, the most interesting contestant in The Great British Sewing Bee is Chinello, a twenty-six year old dressmaker who does not use paper patterns, having learnt to cut forms directly onto the cloth.  Chinello’s approach to clothesmaking is riveting because she engages with fabric directly, choosing not to mediate the process with the use of representational tools such as paper patterns.  Her process involves thinking and working with design in a very three-dimensional way; Chinello is like a living, breathing 3D printer.

The setting for the series is an old Thameside warehouse, seen here in the background while Chinello, one of the contestants, is cutting out her pattern in the foreground.

Another fascinating part of the programme is the way in which the historical context and social commentary about dress is approached.  Every week there is a theme explored, which might be a particular era or the type of material being used in the sewing challenges, such as stretchy fabric or patterned textiles.  The television host then engages with a range of scholars and academics to discuss interesting aspects of that weekly theme.  This part is fascinating because they draw upon a range of scholarly disciplines, from anthropology to consumption studies to performance and fashion, in an effort to contextualise the weekly challenges set for the contestants.

Prof. Giorgio Riello, Textile Historian, who discusses the advent of chintz and printed cottons in the 18th century

The Great British Sewing Bee provides us with a contemporary snapshot of academic interest in fashion, dress and textile studies. Craik’s (2009:264) identification of five types of fashion writing – language of fashion, fashion reportage, promotional writing, critical writing and intellectual analysis – makes no mention of the representation of these studies within the media of television yet it seems that in this one programme, there is visual evidence of all types of fashion writing taking place.[2]

My interest in fashion and dress television programmes, particularly with a focus on historical context and cultural commentary, has its roots in a childhood spent avidly watching The Clothes Show each week.  The Clothes Show was this unique mix of contemporary affairs and intellectual discussion about fashion and dress but whose content has now been taken over by the internet or reality television programmes that concentrate on how to improve the individual identities of ordinary people through fashion and dress.  These would include Trinny and Susannah’s What Not to Wear, How to Look 10 Years Younger or Gok Wan’s How to Look Naked, to name but a few of a growing genre focused upon the daily anxiety of colloquial dress.

While the Great British Sewing Bee has a lineage that certainly relates it to reality television programmes (its sister production is The Great British Bake Off), it does go some way to filling the gap left by the likes of The Clothes Show with its efforts to discuss and inform the viewer about the wider scholarly interest in fashion and dress.  In future, it could be part of a small archive of British television programmes that focus on fashion and dress history, perhaps beginning with Doris Langley-Moore’s What We Wore in 1957.  I would be very grateful to hear of reading suggestions on the subject of historical dress and its representation through the medium of television.  With the increasing complexity of internet coverage, it seems there is still a place for television to capture our attention with contextual discussion of dress and fashion for longer than just a brief click.  Research into how this is done, with particular reference to the second half of the 20th century, is definitely worth further consideration.


[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/10602931/Behind-the-scenes-of-Great-British-Sewing-Bee.html [Accessed 10 March 2014]

[2] Jennifer Craik (2009) Fashion: The Key Concepts Oxford, Berg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Spring!

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Guest Post: How to Write a Book in Twenty Years – Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Worn Through is pleased to have another guest post from fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell*

KCC Cover

SEE THE BOTTOM OF THIS POST FOR A BOOK GIVEAWAY!-UPDATE WE HAVE A WINNER, THANK YOU

FROM KIMBERLY: Twenty years ago, when I first started working on the project that would become my new book Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, I loved talking about it to anyone who would listen. Ten or twelve years later, my friends and family had learned not to mention the book; I was in the midst of a dispiriting crash course in the harsh realities of academic publishing, and my frustration was painfully obvious.

Now that Fashion Victims is out at last, my unpublished colleagues keep pulling me aside and asking in hushed tones how I did it. How did I choose a publisher? How did I score 90,000 words and 220 illustrations? How I you negotiate a contract? These are the same questions I had before starting the publishing process, and I can finally say with confidence that we’re all asking the wrong questions.

If you’re thinking of writing a book about fashion, you should be asking yourself the following: How many images do I need? Where am I going to find these images? Who’s going to pay for them? Answer those three questions, and the rest will quickly start to fall into place.
I probably don’t have to convince Worn Through readers that an appropriate number of high-quality images are essential to any discussion of fashion; that number will vary depending on the particular subject and methodology, but–whether it’s ten or 200–every image should serve the text rather than simply illustrate it. Lackluster or irrelevant images are a red flag, raising doubts about the quality of the writing. The same is true, however, about books that are mostly pictures. On the other hand, I’ve happily bought lousy books just for the pictures. Images are evidence. Neglect them and you do a disservice to your readers, and, more importantly, to yourself.

The number and type of images you want to use in your book will dictate so many other factors. There are only a handful of publishers who will even consider fashion books—or illustrated books of any kind—and many of those have strict minimum and maximum image counts. A few publishers told me they’d love to publish my book with ten, twenty, or even fifty images—fine for a cultural history or museum studies book, but not nearly enough for an art historian to do justice to the infinite variety of fashionable dress under Louis XVI. Others were more generous with images but wanted me to cut half the text (and all the footnotes). Yale University Press routinely publishes books with 200 images and footnotes galore, so that’s the one I targeted. Yale’s deservedly stellar reputation in the field, its well-established distribution networks, and the chance to work with legendary editor and designer Gillian Malpass were equally strong attractions.

Two hundred images may sound like a dream come true (and it is) but someone has to pay for all those images. That means paying for both the photo itself (or, more often, the digital file) and the reproduction rights, calculated on a sliding scale based on print run, image size and placement, distribution, and so on. With academic books, it’s usually the author who pays; the picture research, captions, photo credits, and paperwork fall on the author, too. Trade publishers often give authors a budget for images, but it doesn’t go far; it’s much more expensive to license images for commercial use, and the author is still responsible legally if not financially.

For Fashion Victims, I was able to cobble together grants, savings, and favors to cover my image costs, but the process of seeking out funding was time-consuming and soul-destroying. There are not many grants out there for publishing, although academics can sometimes get subventions from their universities. And a grant application can take up to a year from start to finish, with no guarantee that it will be successful.

Fortunately, many forward-thinking museums and archives have begun to make their image libraries available to anyone, at no cost, through “open content” programs. Other institutions offer free images for academic publishing. I was able to take advantage of this welcome trend, and it was certainly something I took into consideration when making the final decisions about my images and cover image. I also got very creative about sourcing mass-produced images. Why pay a picture agency for a fashion plate when I could get it from the British Museum for free? For contemporary subjects, authors can save money by taking their own photos; I was once advised by a journal editor that licensing a movie still would be cost-prohibitive, but my own photo of a billboard for the same movie could be published legally and at no charge.

However, I fear that the open content trend is only going create new problems, as the same images from the same collections will be published over and over again while other collections remain inaccessible and unknown. I am absolutely guilty of this; more than half of the 220 images in my book come from the same five institutions, largely because they were searchable online and free (or at least inexpensive) to license. Similarly, many publishers have agreements with certain museums or picture agencies that make their images more affordable than others.

But the money I saved on open content images allowed me to have other key objects photographed and published for the first time. So for every free, familiar image, there’s one that you’ve never seen before that cost me $500. Because I work on the eighteenth century, I generally don’t have to worry about copyright, which can drive the costs even higher. But if you’re using contemporary fashion photography or publishing with a trade press, you might need to sell a kidney. If I had to do it again (and I do—I’m already working on a sequel to Fashion Victims), I’d pay more attention to image costs during the research and writing stage, rather than face sticker shock and a lengthy fundraising drive at the end. Indeed, knowing how the whole publishing process is likely to unfold has made the early stages go much more smoothly.

If dealing with the images was the hard part, negotiating the contract was the easy part. A reputable academic publisher will offer you a fairly standard agreement with little wiggle room, especially for a first-time author. (My editor graciously fought for a few additional perks, like more color pictures and extra author copies—another reason why a good editor is as important as a good publisher.) If you’re publishing with a trade press, you should have an agent or lawyer negotiate for you. If you’re hoping to make money from publishing, your time would be better spent writing textbooks, or maybe romance novels.

But there are many other compelling reasons to publish your work, like getting tenure, giving back to your field, or increasing your chances of getting a job, raise, or promotion. If you’ve already done the research and writing (for a dissertation, conference paper, or exhibition, for example), why wouldn’t you want your efforts to have a permanent, public impact in print? Personally, I’m amazed at how much great research goes unpublished—not because publishers aren’t interested, but because the authors never submit it to publishers.

Ultimately, getting Fashion Victims published—finding a publisher, revising the text, raising grant money, locating and licensing illustrations, and slogging through the year-long editing process, from copy editing to proofreading to indexing—took roughly the same amount of time as writing it in the first place: nearly two decades in total. The book started as my MA thesis, then spilled over into my PhD dissertation, only to undergo a total rewrite before I even considered submitting for publication. Over the next few years, I continued honing the text as I figured out how I was going to pay for the image rights and reproductions. It evolved from a formal and somewhat fragmentary series of chapters—many of them originally developed as stand-alone conference papers or journal articles—into an organic narrative, ironically becoming much truer to the themes that got me interested in the subject in the first place.

During the same period, I worked in some museums, had a couple of kids, attended conferences, moved house a few times, and published a bunch of journal and magazine articles and essays in edited volumes and exhibition catalogues. Along the way, I discovered new objects, images, and sources; made valuable contacts; and learned the ropes of the publishing business; all of those things ultimately benefitted the book. At the time, I was intensely annoyed with myself because I hadn’t managed to publish it yet. But, looking back now, I can see how useful that season of discontent was. Fashion Victims is much richer for it, and so am I. And it was worth waiting to work with the publisher, editor, and images I wanted all along. The book I’ve had in my head for twenty years is now in print, and it’s even more beautiful than I could have imagined.

Check it out.

Related reading:
http://getalifephd.blogspot.com/2012/04/how-to-publish-academic-book-why.html

http://dahl.at/wordpress/2013/08/04/choosing-where-to-publish-academic-books/

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/columns-and-blogs/soapbox/article/47381-it-s-not-all-academic.html

*Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant, and educator for museums and universities around the world. She is a frequent contributor to books, scholarly journals, and magazines, as well as an experienced lecturer. Her areas of expertise include European fashion and textiles and French and British painting and decorative arts of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries

BOOK GIVEAWAY!-UPDATE WE HAVE A WINNER, THANK YOU
Trivia question: Who painted the portrait on the book cover?
First person to email Monica the right answer wins a copy.
United States and Canada only please.

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Parisian Insights: Costume and Textile Auction

I am preparing a conference I will be participating to on the 13th February at the Chateau de Versailles – a conference about Marie Antoinette’s influence on contemporary fashion. Among the two other speakers will be Severine Experton-Dard, a textile and fashion expert that closely collaborates with a Parisian auctioneer, Thierry de Maigret. When I first met Severine, not only did we talk about our conference but she also kindly presented an extraordinary auction she was then preparing and that is taking place tomorrow at the Hotel Drouot, in Paris. This auction gathers textile elements from the 18th century but also rare costumes of the 18th and 19th century kept until now by old aristocratic French families that never hesitated to use those historical garments as fancy costumes. Moreover, alongside the ancient pieces, are also sold several haute couture dresses and theatrical costumes from the 1940s and 1950s.

Robe à la française, 1750-60.

Robe à la française, 1750-60.

I must admit I was very unaware of how such auctions functioned. I did, of course, already, attend and observe fashion auctions (a subject I have already written about here and there) but I had never been confronted to such ancient garments and the naive little girl in me believed these only belonged to museums. I was fascinated to learn how so many old families still possessed such objects and how well preserved they were despite being used as fantasy bal costumes. Such auctions highlight very intimate pieces – more than museums – and add a more familiar feel to our experience to fashion. How lovely to take a look at the baby bibs from the early 1900s: some stained – and you can only imagine a baby’s first experience with food – others spotless and one embroidered with the charming word ‘Darling’. Who decided one day to keep all these sophisticated laced bibs? Especially the dirty ones…And those women undergarments from the late 19th century? When we know how rare it is to find them in good state because of their proximity with the body and its sweat…Much mystery resides in comprehending the context of the objects but how fascinating.

Ensemble of bibs - early 20th century

Ensemble of bibs – early 20th century

Severine also explained that most buyers during those kind of auctions were designers from international high street brands (I told you I was very naive!) that bought the -incredibly- cheap textile elements to copy their motifs and add them to next season’s best selling shirt or dress. 

4 printing models, early 20th century

4 printing models, early 20th century

The auction also presents exotic garments from Japan, China and Persia, most dating back to the 19th century that please the eye with their exquisite embroideries and materials while we can’t help but observe the fluidity and looseness of Asian feminine dress compared to the tightness and extravagance of the Western costumes visible a few pages later within the catalogue.

Day dress, 1865

Day dress, 1865

The Western ensembles are the most dramatic objects of the auction. As I said, I couldn’t believe such garments were still secretly kept within the intimacy of modern families. I got the chance of touching and observing a little number during my meeting with Severine and I felt like a child in a candy shop.  The dresses and masculine jackets of the 18th century and 19th century presented at this auction take a whole new identity and are installed in an objective dimension. They no longer belong to museum glass cases or classic painting, they belong to reality. They were the clothing of a great-great-great-great grandparent that lived in it and the superbly preserved textiles enhance their proximity.

Evening dress, Worth -1935

Evening dress, Worth -1935

When we hop to the haute couture garments, we can’t help but think what an interesting genealogy of the fashion silhouette the auction catalogue is and why not imagine that one of those 18th century robe à la française and that adorable 1970 Escada flowered tunique may have belonged to the same family: two women confronted to two extremes of the fashion form.

Mini dress- Tunique, Escada, 1970

Mini dress- Tunique, Escada, 1970

I am shocked by the cheap prices of the objects sold: Severine admitted she never hesitated to buy historical dresses for herself  to wear at fancy parties and she surely made me want to do the same. Obviously, museum professionals will be the major buyers of the most outstanding objects but there will surely be enough left for the passionate amateurs…

Do have a look at the catalogue online, it is full of treasures I could not all write about here.

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Parisian Insights: Sonia Delaunay – The Colors of Abstraction

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

Sonia Delaunay's son blanket, 1911

Sonia Delaunay’s son blanket, 1911

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

Sonia Delaunay- Gloria Swanson coat

Sonia Delaunay- Gloria Swanson coat, 1924

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

Sonia Delaunay - Swimsuits, 1928

Sonia Delaunay – Swimsuits, 1928

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Women Fashion Power, Design Museum, London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Feminism’ and the Wonderbra (authors own photographs)

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

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Margaret Thatcher discussing her wardrobe (authors own photograph)

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

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

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

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

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

Morwenna Wilson wearing her Carven jacket

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

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

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

 

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

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