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

Comments

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!

Comments

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.

2 Comments

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.

Comments

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.

2 Comments

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.  

image1 image2

‘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?

image2

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.

image2 image3

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.

image3

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]

Comments

Research Award Guest Post: The Fashions of Early Modern London

Worn Through Research Award winner, Sophie Pitman is a second year AHRC-funded PhD student of History at St. John’s College, Cambridge, supervised by Ulinka Rublack. Her dissertation, ‘Tailoring the city: the making of clothing and the making of London, c.1560-1660,’ uses material, visual, literary and archival sources to explore the ways clothing contributed to the development of early modern London and, in turn, how London’s rapid growth changed the making, wearing, and meaning of clothing. Her methodology is based on interdisciplinary approaches to visual and material culture that she developed during her Frank Knox Fellowship at Harvard (2010-11) and her Master’s at the Bard Graduate Center (2011-13).

Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg, Civitatis Orbis Terrarum, (c.1574), MAP L85c no.27. Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg, Civitatis Orbis Terrarum, (c.1574), MAP L85c no.27. Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Early modern London was full of clothing. Fabric-laden boats traversed the Thames, bringing textiles in and out of the city to customers hungry for a wide-range of colours, textures, and patterns. Young apprentices wearing large ruffs were disciplined by their masters for their transgression, merchants imported and exported textiles which were then sold in new shopping spaces such as Thomas Gresham’s Royal Exchange, actors wore sumptuous costumes on the public theatre stages, and cast-offs were re-sold in the second-hand shops of Long Lane. This was a city growing rich from the trade of textiles, and on whose booming streets an ever-increasing range of fashions could be seen.

I am attempting to study the growth of early modern London through the ways clothing was made, worn and understood by inhabitants and visitors to the city. As Vanessa Harding has explained, “historians of early modern London do not expect to find new caches of unknown documents.”[1] Most of the manuscripts and printed books that I pore over in the archives have been consulted, discussed and debated by generations of scholars fascinated with the history of London. But when I embarked upon a PhD focusing on clothing in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century London, a period of rapid and uncertain change in which London grew from a small European outpost into one of the continent’s largest cities, I decided to not limit my search to textual sources alone. In addition to consulting archival documents, I look to images and – most excitingly – to extant objects. 

The Museum of London is widely celebrated for its vast costume collection, containing over 24,000 objects. But while a handful of its earliest pieces from the Tudor period have been well-preserved and are well-known, particularly through Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion books[2], most of the early clothing collection is under-represented in the online catalogue and little has been published on it. Though not a completely unknown cache, the collection is certainly a promising trove waiting to be explored, and provides much exciting material for my research.

 

Until recently, the Museum of London’s walls were decorated with a huge sculpture based on a diamond and emerald studded salamander brooch, part of the Cheapside Hoard, a cache of sixteenth- and seventeenth century jewels found in the City of London 1912.  Photograph by Sophie Pitman

Until recently, the Museum of London’s walls were decorated with a huge sculpture based on a diamond and emerald studded salamander brooch, part of the Cheapside Hoard, a cache of sixteenth- and seventeenth century jewels found in the City of London 1912. Photograph by Sophie Pitman

The costume stores under the galleries of the Museum of London are as tantalising as any other museum I have visited. Rows of umbrellas, concealed with protective white covers, hang from a rail, their horn handles peeking out. One apparently unpromising cupboard, which could be confused for a filing cabinet, opens to reveal shelves full of children’s shoes – rows filled with tiny pairs of Victorian boots and leather slippers which give a slightly eerie feel to one corner of the collection. But most of the objects I consulted were carefully laid out for me on large tables in the centre of the room.

This is where I was able to view the Isham doublet (A7577) – a black silk cut velvet piece dated to the first quarter of the seventeeth-century. The doublet, one of the most common forms of male upper-body wear, is much degraded, but this deterioration enables a close examination of the tailoring techniques used in this fashionable garment’s construction.[3] The silk, patterned with leaves and scrolls, covers a layer of dark brown wool fabric, underneath which is a coarse linen interlining. The doublet has been quilted with wool, the neat ridges of which are covered with an inside lining of pink silk. The collar, now coming away from the body of the doublet, is constructed of four layers of stiff canvas. The doublet was fastened with thirty-four buttons constructed of wood and wrapped in black and silver gilt thread. Similar buttons are at the collar neck and the lower sleeves. The metal hooks along the waist of the doublet show how it could be attached to a pair of breeches or hose. Around the lower edge of the doublet at the waist there are small tabs or ‘laps’ made from different felted brown fabrics. We can almost imagine the thrifty tailor at work, selecting off-cuts from previous commissions to line these small decorative flaps. Though this doublet is said to have been worn by a wealthy nobleman – either 1st Baronet of Lamport John Isham (1582-1651) or his son Justinian (1610-1675) – it bears evidence of quick and economic manufacture. This branch of the Northamptonshire Isham family gained their fortunes in London in the cloth trade, and so this doublet contains many threads (please pardon the pun) of the development of the city – as a site for the dynamic and lucrative commercial trade in textiles, as a centre full of quick and clever tailors, and as a stage upon which the well-dressed could show off their new silk velvet doublets tailored to the most fashionable shapes.

While most of the pieces I was able to consult were laid out carefully on tables, I had the most fun rifling through the storeroom drawers. These wide and shallow wooden trays are filled with fragments carefully protected with foam and card supports. Excavations of London sites over the past century have furnished these draws with pieces – laces, shoes, belts, codpieces, hats, decorative bands, cloth fragments. Unlike the Isham doublet, we have few clues as to the identity of the original owners of these pieces. But as an historian, I have long been fascinated by the way that clothing carries the imprint of its former owner. Sweat stains, rips and tears, even deposits from a decaying body all give us insights into the life (and sometimes death) of the body beneath the clothes.

One brown and black cloth slipper, (A.26847) heavily patched and pieced together with large clumsy stitches, suggests many days of pounding the streets of London. Possibly a lining for a pair of outer shoes, this well-worn piece was found in Worship Street and brought to the museum in 1924. When the former owner of this slipper was busy repairing another hole or tear, this area lay outside of the city walls and was mainly fields. Close by, London’s first theatres – The Theatre (1576) and The Curtain (1577) were drawing audiences from across the urban area. Why this slipper was left behind and who took such care to patch and repair it, we will probably never know. But it does demonstrate how early modern Londoners valued their clothing, which bore the brunt of the climate, the urban environment, and the demands of labour on the body. 

But the feather in the cap of the Museum of London’s collection of sixteenth-century clothing must be its unparalleled collection of knitted hats worn by non-elite men. As John Stow explained in his Survey of London (1598), such hats were ubiquitous in the city, ‘the youthful citizens also took them to the New fashion of flat caps, knit of woollen yarn black.’[4] In 1571, the Cappers act even made it obligatory for men from the middling and lower end of the social spectrum to wear an English-made knitted wool cap on Sundays and holy days. It was said that there were over eight thousand people in London alone occupied ‘in the trade and science of capping’ and this act attempted to ensure continued business and stability in a city rocked by fashion trends and imported goods.[5] Fifty-seven knitted caps, all found in excavations within the City of London, demonstrate the range of knitting, dying, and finishing techniques and suggest that many wearers attempted to personalize their headgear with ribbons, slashes and tabbed brims.[6] It was these individual efforts that I was most fascinated to see up close, to witness how early modern Londoners attempted to stand out, adapt and make even the most humble and necessary items of clothing fashionable in a city bustling with dressed bodies.

Unknown, Portrait of Edward Courtenay, 1st Early of Devon (1526-1556), c. 1555, oil on panel: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edward_Courtenay_1st_Earl_of_Devon.jpg

Unknown, Portrait of Edward Courtenay, 1st Early of Devon (1526-1556), c. 1555, oil on panel, via Wikimedia Commons

As I am particularly interested in the manufacture of clothing, I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to see evidence of craftsmanship in the Museum of London’s collections. One dark brown leather jerkin (36.237) on display in the ‘War and Fashion’ section of the Medieval Gallery, is decorated all over with scored diagonal and vertical lines and diamond, heart and star pinking.[1] Sized for a young man and dated to the second half of the sixteenth-century, the jerkin shows how even a relatively mundane item of outerwear could express the emotions and decorative interests of a young man. In conjunction with my trips to the museum, I have been learning the techniques required by the tailors and other makers in the period, and during a weekend course on ‘Historical Stitching & Decorative Techniques on Leather Clothing, 1400-1800’ at the School of Historical Dress, I was able to recreate this punched and scored design myself. In doing so, I realised that such effects could be achieved quickly with fairly simple punching and scoring tools, requiring no more than the patience and eye accuracy of a leatherworker.

A detail of the star punch and my sample reconstruction of the Museum of London Jerkin. Photograph by Sophie Pitman

A detail of the star punch and my sample reconstruction of the Museum of London Jerkin. Photograph by Sophie Pitman

I am very grateful to Worn Through for the support that enabled me to make research trips to London, and to discuss my research in this blog. I would also like to thank Tim Long, Curator of Fashion and Decorative Arts at the Museum of London, for his help and assistance. Thanks also to Hilary Davidson for her kind generosity – electronically and in person – of information and encouragement. I would also like to thank Karl Robinson and The School of Historical Dress, and my supervisor Professor Ulinka Rublack for their support and interest in the academic value of historical reconstruction. I have much more work ahead of me, especially with regard to the archaeological provenance of many of the pieces, but I am sure that these investigations and the photographs that I was able to take (though unfortunately not able to share online at this stage) will form a central part of my PhD thesis, which – in due course, will hopefully be adapted for publication.

If you have any suggestions, comments, or tips for Sophie, please feel free to leave a comment!

[1] For images and information, see ‘Jerkin, 36.237’: http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/Online/object.aspx?objectID=object-118831&start=474&rows=1

[1] Vanessa Harding, ‘Recent Perspectives on Early Modern London,’ The Historical Journal, Volume 47, Issue 2 (June 2004), pp 435 – 450, 447

[2] In particular see Janet Arnold, Patterns of Fashion 3: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women, c1560-1620. London; New York: Macmillan ; Drama Book, 1985 and Janet Arnold, Jenny Tiramani, and Santina Levey, Patterns of Fashion 4: The Cut and Construction of Linen Shirts, Smocks, Neckwear, Headwear and Accessories for Men and Women C. 1540 – 1660. Unabridged edition. (Hollywood, CA: Macmillan, 2008).

 

[3] For photographs and close examination of the Doublet, see ‘Early Doublet in The Museum of London,’ (9 December 2011) http://thegoodwyfe.blogspot.com.es/2011/12/early-doublet-in-museum-of-london.html

[4] John Stow, A Survey of London ed. H. Morley, (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1997), 445-6. As quoted in Maria Hayward, Rich Apparel: Clothing and the Law in Henry VIII’s England (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 122.

[5]1571 13 Eliz. cap, 19 as in George Nicholls, A History of the English Poor Law in Connection with the State of the Country and the Condition of the People, (reprint Clark: The Lawbook Exchange, 2006), 173-4.

[6] Fortunately, many of these caps have been photographed and documented in the online catalogue: http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/Online/. Thanks to Hilary Davidson and Jane Malcolm Davis for sharing their prepublication copy of ‘“He is of no account … if he have not a velvet or taffeta hat”: A survey of sixteenth century knitted caps’ which is forthcoming….

 

Comments

Italian Style at Minneapolis Institute of Art

2014_ItalianStyle_008

The exhibition entitled Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945* is truly extensive! A few weeks ago I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to see their first ever fashion exhibition as well as interview Assistant Curator of Textiles Nicole LaBouff, PhD.

The MIA is a solid museum and I knew the exhibition originated from the Victoria & Albert Museum, however I was still surprised at the breadth and depth of the show. Therefore I’m spending two visits at the museum and devoting two distinct Worn Through posts to the tour/interview and then to the review.

A little background from the press release:: “Trace the evolution of Italian design, from Gucci and Prada to Missoni, Versace and more. A major retrospective of the fashion that has defined a nation—and a rare chance to see Milan’s finest in Minneapolis. An MIA first, this groundbreaking exhibition examines the craftsmanship and entrepreneurial verve that catapulted Italy from the ashes of World War II to the style powerhouse it is today. Immerse yourself in impeccable design, rare ingenuity, and the head-turning glamour of celebrity style.”

Nicole was generous enough to walk me through the exhibit discussing its development by the V & A staff as well as any adjustments made for the Minneapolis space and audience.

2014_ItalianStyle_002
Dolce & Gabbana
Leather Ankle Boots with Gold, White and Pink Embroidery
2000 Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tom Ford for Gucci, man's velvet evening suit, Autumn/Winter 2004/5.
Tom Ford for Gucci
Man’s Velvet Evening Suit
Autumn/Winter 2004/5
Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As I walked thru the sprawling space looking at the numerous items Nicole explained that V & A curator of 20th century and contemporary fashion, Sonnet Stanfill, did extensive research into archives and an array of other sources to pull together this comprehensive show.

Monica: How did Italian Style come to the Minnepolis Institute of Arts?

Nicole: Negotiations mostly were before I arrived. The way it happened was that the V&A typically reaches out to our museum and gives us a sense of what traveling exhibits were lined up. (The MIA) was interested in doing a fashion show and what our director and our leadership really liked about Italian Style is that it wasn’t one designer that was featured, it was focusing on an entire a national industry and that was a huge draw for them.

When the show completed its run at the V & A it was packaged for touring. It will come to a handful of U.S. spots and was constructed to be transported virtually pre-built. The MIA purchased new modular cases to showcase the dress objects and plans to repurpose the cases for future shows. When the exhibition was being installed the V & A sent their choice of individuals to assist and to handle all dress objects.

2014_ItalianStyle_006
Mila Schon
Sequined Evening Dress and Silk Coat
Worn and given by Princess Stanislaus Radziwill Worn to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball 1966 Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Monica: Can you discuss some of the challenges and highlights of the preparation and install?

Nicole: It came all prepared. That made it really exciting, the fact that we had these massive crates that would be wheeled into the galleries and when we would pry it open it would be like unwrapping these giant Christmas presents day after day! That created an install that was really high on drama.

I can’t really think of any in particular challenges as it was very smooth install. I attribute it to the fact that things were dressed everything as very fast really very pleasant.

Gucci, bamboo-handled pigskin bag, early 1960s.
Gucci
Bamboo-handled Pigskin Bag, early 1960s
Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Monica: What are some of the fan favorite pieces and you must have a favorite?

Nicole: I love the Fendi mink coat for the intricacy of construction and the “How did they do it?” factor. When we were unpacking objects I was really puzzling over how did they get those pieces (together). [Note from Monica-It's a patchwork coat and is displayed adjacent to its mock up]. There are so many fan favorites but the Fendi coat is something that there is a lot ooo-ing and aaahhh-ing and gasping. But, I kind of worry that people walk past it because it kind of doesn’t look like a fur coat. I think it’s easy to walk past it and think it’s a velvet coat and printed or something. [Note from Monica--it is part of a large display of items versus an isolated spotlight piece].

People really love the Audrey Hepburn dress. That’s an older Hollywood actress that even young people are really familiar with and spans all ages. I think it’s really interesting that it’s a film costume and you can see it moving in that film clip so it’s wonderful to have it contextualized with that material.

The Elizabeth Taylor jewelry is a really great story and it’s a great object. [Note from Monica–In her blog post for the MIA, Nicole tells the fantastic tale of Eddie Fisher buying Taylor the Bulgari earrings in an attempt to save their marriage during her affair with Richard Burton, only to have her foot the bill when it didn’t go his way.]. I’m always sure to mention on tours one of the things I think people really would appreciate about it is that the gemstones are set on springs so it would have trembled when the wearer moved so it would have been such a spectacular piece to see it in motion.

I think there’s a lot of really attractive and exciting pieces in the final gallery about the designer. The Dolce and Gabbana is hand painted, so if anyone has a difficulty understanding why a fashion exhibit belongs in an art museum I always make the point that that’s a very literal translation that bridges because it’s a painting. A lot of people catch that (and show) a lot of nodding and understanding that fashion has relevance in art museums. Also the Capucci piece in that last gallery is also a stunner; the green and pink one.

Roberto Capucci, silk evening dress, 1987-88.
Roberto Capucci,
Silk Evening Dress, 1987-88
Courtesy Roberto Capucci Foundation
Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The exhibition is built on the idea of the history of Italian style shifted from magnificent designers and their craftsmanship, then makes its way toward mass production, ready to wear and the entertainment industry, and then circling back through to unique pieces and artisans again.

Monica: What is meaningful about this exhibition to the average Minnesotan (and other U.S. cities it will travel to)? Is it the familiar designer names? Why do you think the Italian designer really grabs the American public’s interest?

Nicole: The didactics explain that the story of the growth of Italian fashion is really implicated in American history too. So it’s really an important symbiotic relationship between Italian producers and American consumers. And that’s something the exhibition really demonstrates very clearly.

I don’t imagine it’s a draw. The drama of having a major fashion exhibition here at the MIA, the first ever, is the draw, but then once they’re here they’ll find it’s really not just Italian designers doing something over in Italy. It’s actually we as American buyers helped to grow this industry and this would be really interesting to the person going through the exhibits.

If we had one on French fashion we’d see people coming in great numbers. It’s an exciting new type of artwork for people to engage with in a large scale.

In a couple of weeks look for my review of the exhibition which will be from the lens of an audience member as well as colleague. I look forward to giving all of the items a second look!

*Top photo:
Photograph by Gian Paolo Barbieri for Gianfranco Ferre advertisement Fall/Winter 1991
Model: Aly Dunne
©GIANPAOLOBARBIERI

Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945 at Minneapolis Institute of Art

Runs Thru January 4, 2015, ticketed exhibition in the Target Galley, see the website for details

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

Comments

Research Award Guest Post: Discovering Bob Bugnand

Costume and textiles scholar, and Worn Through Research Award winner Susan Neill has eighteen years of experience as a museum curator and has also practiced independently. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Anthropology; has curated more than a dozen exhibitions of textiles, ethnographic dress, and historic fashion; and has presented her research at national and international symposia including the Costume Colloquium in Florence, Italy. Her current research interests are couturier Bob Bugnand and the American textile designer Mary Crovatt Hambidge. She works at the Field Museum as an exhibition project manager.

Discovering Bob Bugnand

First Encounter

No matter how long I work in museums or how many costume collections I visit, I get a thrill every time I enter one of those exalted closets. There is a mix of pleasant anticipation – of encountering old friends like a 1960s paper dress or a full-skirted antebellum gown – and the promise of discovery – of garments that spark questions I never thought to ask before. So it was in February of 2012, as I began selecting objects at the Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS) for an exhibition of twentieth-century dress that became Dior & More – For the Love of Fashion (closed May 24, 2014).

Having worked with the treasure-trove of WRHS in the past, I expected the major challenge would not be in selecting garments so much as it would be paring down a long list of worthy candidates until the most compelling cast remained. Such an exquisite dilemma! As the days passed and haute couture designs by Cristóbal Balenciaga, Pierre Balmain, Christian Dior, Jacques Fath, Hubert de Givenchy, Madame Grès, Lucien Lelong, Jeanne Paquin, Callot Soeurs, and others began to fill out the ranks, I turned my attention to lesser-known couturiers to add dimension to the story. And that is when I met Bob Bugnand.

Paris label, ca. 1960, author photo, Western Reserve Historical Society, 89.83.17

Paris label, ca. 1960, author photo, Western Reserve Historical Society, 89.83.17

Evening dress, ca. 1960, courtesy Western Reserve Historical Society, 89.83.17

Evening dress, ca. 1960, courtesy Western Reserve Historical Society, 89.83.17

Ultimately, eight Bugnand designs were located in the collection and two were featured in the show. These evening dresses were made for Elizabeth Parke Firestone (Mrs. Harvey S. Firestone, Jr.), a discerning client who began buying made-to-measure clothing in Paris in the 1920s and amassed an extensive wardrobe by leading designers. Writing exhibit labels proved challenging, since references to Bob Bugnand were cursory. Some basic facts were repeated: 1) he designed for Jacques Heim and Robert Piguet before going out on his own, and 2) Jacqueline Kennedy and the Duchess of Windsor were both his clients. The tidbit that stayed with me came from a letter Firestone wrote in 1970, saying Bugnand had relocated to New York, where he “makes only for a very few people, [and] does all my work” (Orr 2006: 80). (Let’s hear it for graduate research – thank you, Lois Orr!)

Evening dress, ca. 1959, courtesy Western Reserve Historical Society, 89.83.16

Evening dress, ca. 1959, courtesy Western Reserve Historical Society, 89.83.16

Still wondering about Bugnand several months after the exhibition opened, I inquired about pieces in other collections containing Firestone garments and soon a dozen more had surfaced. When I learned his papers had recently been made available through the Special Collections at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT),I knew I had stumbled onto a topic worthy of exploration.

Thanks to the Worn Through research award, I was able to go to New York to examine the Bugnand archives and begin piecing together the arc of his career. Though it is tempting to craft a research melodrama of alternating dead-ends and puzzle pieces fitting together, instead what follows is more straightforward and, I hope, somewhat more useful. These paragraphs offer a basic chronology of Bob Bugnand’s career and my initial assessment of his work, which helps situate him in the context of twentieth-century fashion and can assist in dating his surviving fashions.

The Garments

To date, 75 Bugnand designs have been identified in 15 collections and I have personally examined 37 of them. Nearly all of the designs are complete garments or ensembles, but the number also includes a few separates. Fully half of the pieces were made for Firestone.

Limited information about additional Bugnand garments is available in a 1991 Sotheby’s catalog featuring pieces from Firestone’s estate. Images and descriptions of several other garments are available through auction house websites. Garments with Bob Bugnand for Sam Friedlander labels are beyond the scope of my current research and are excluded from the data set.

Additional Sources

This preliminary study has also been informed by Bugnand’s archives in the Special Collections at FIT and Firestone’s papers at the Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford. Women’s Wear Daily, newspapers, and magazines further document the designer’s life and work.

Early Career

Fashion designer Bob Bugnand was born Antoine Bugnand in France on Feb. 23, 1924. The city of his birth is unknown, as is the source of his seemingly American nickname. He studied architecture at the Beaux Arts before focusing on couture, then apprenticed with Lelong, and was chief designer for both Piguet and Heim (New York Times Oct. 3, 1958). An undocumented press clipping reports Bugnand also worked with Alwynn Camble, another young designer, for several seasons.

In 1954, Bob Bugnand “opened a Couture house [in Paris] based on the formula of original designs which will not be repeated” (Women’s Wear Daily May 21, 1954). The venture was unusual, if not entirely unique. Rather than presenting traditional collections and incurring the associated expense of production and showings, he instead presented to private clients and buyers original sketches from which they made selections. The press described Bugnand as a “personable young designer” (New York Herald Tribune Feb. 25, 1959). His early enterprise had the capacity to produce fifty original models per month.

Bugnand apparently met Firestone, one of his most important clients, in May of 1956, after which she commissioned this evening dress now in the collection of The Henry Ford. In a letter the following spring, Firestone told the designer the red evening gown was her favorite and ordered a second version in white, which resides at WRHS.

Evening dress, 1957, courtesy Western Reserve Historical Society, 89.83.19

Evening dress, 1957, courtesy Western Reserve Historical Society, 89.83.19

Draping, 1957, courtesy Western Reserve Historical Society, 89.83.19

Draping, 1957, courtesy Western Reserve Historical Society, 89.83.19

By the summer of 1957, Bugnand expanded his business from sketch-based exclusive designs to include traditional seasonal presentations (Women’s Wear Daily July 23, 1957). Though Firestone did not attend the showing of forty models in his fall collection, she did place a significant order while in Paris that September. She commissioned a black velvet dress called Blackmail; the Florence dress of blue wool; the Jaguar coat ensemble; and Platinum, a gray flannel suit with embroidery, mink trim, and a matching chiffon blouse. Regrettably, none of these have been identified in collections.

Paris Without a Passport

Bugnand opened a custom-order salon in New York on East 62nd Street in the fall of 1958. This additional location enabled him to better serve existing American clients while also making his designs accessible to women who did not make seasonal trips to Paris to have clothes made. With another unconventional strategy, Bugnand simultaneously reinforced the allure of French fashion – the cachet of garments designed in Paris, constructed of French fabrics, and made in the couture tradition – while removing the obstacle of transatlantic travel.

According to the press, Bugnand seemed to have found “a magical formula for selling made-to-order clothes to American women,” though it was actually more of an innovative business practice than alchemy or even sleight of hand (New York Times Feb. 25, 1959). The “magic” happened by making and fitting a muslin of the desired dress in New York, flying the muslin to the designer’s Paris workroom where it was used to make the dress, and then flying the finished model back to New York for final fittings – voila! The entire process took only about three weeks. To uphold their prestige, Bugnand collections were shown first in Paris and presented again several weeks later in New York.

Jacqueline Kennedy (Mrs. John F. Kennedy) was a Bugnand client during this period, though whether she placed orders in Paris or New York is unknown. The future First Lady used his fashions helped shape her public image. She chose a simple pink wool dress by Bugnand for the Life magazine cover story, “Jackie Kennedy: A Front Runner’s Appealing Wife” (Life August 24, 1959). Numerous photographs demonstrate his black-and-white houndstooth wool suit with black braid was a workhorse on the campaign trail during her husband’s presidential run in 1959 and 1960. The graphic, easy-to-wear combination was featured in the popular exhibition, Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years, and is the sole Bugnand design in the Kennedy Library. Notably, the catalog for the Hamish Bowles-curated exhibition contains the only scholarly reference to Bugnand published to date (Metropolitan Museum of Art 2001: 47).

Haute Couture Years

In the summer of 1960, Bugnand’s reputation advanced considerably when he was recognized with membership in the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne and opened his salon at 372 rue St. Honore in Paris. Women’s Wear Daily anticipated his inaugural showing could “be the big opening of the year,” noting the designer “already in New York has a fine reputation for elegant young clothes which have a sophisticated zip” (July 25, 1960). Though the collection received mixed reviews, the New York Times lauded his “trompe-l’oeil tricks” – reversible jackets and overskirts that transformed dresses for wear after five. Remarking on his evening clothes, the paper reported, “Bugnand can be aptly called the bead boy. His lady-like dazzlers included one hound’stooth [sic] check done in jet, another in a fabric patterned like an old Victorian rose wallpaper and covered with shining bugle beads” (July 28, 1960). Sparkling eveningwear was the designer’s hallmark and featured prominently in all his collections.

Evening dress, ca. 1965, courtesy The Ohio State University Historic Costume & Textiles Collection, 1986.162.25

Evening dress, ca. 1965, courtesy The Ohio State University Historic Costume & Textiles Collection, 1986.162.25

Beadwork, ca. 1965, author photo, The Ohio State University Historic Costume & Textiles Collection, 1986.162.25

Beadwork, ca. 1965, author photo, The Ohio State University Historic Costume & Textiles Collection, 1986.162.25

Burchard Galleries auctioned one of Bugnand’s characteristically brilliant confections in 2012 (below). The calf-length gown commissioned by Firestone may well have been from the designer’s Spring 1959 collection, about which the New York Herald Tribune reported his “[s]hort evening dresses sparkle like the ceiling of the Hayden Planetarium. They’re almost all bare topped with semi-full skirts and what appears to be the labor of forty seamstresses worked into their elaborate surfaces” (Feb. 25, 1959).

Evening dress, ca. 1959, courtesy Burchard Galleries

Evening dress, ca. 1959, courtesy Burchard Galleries

Many fashion-conscious women in the United States learned about Bob Bugnand in the pages of Vogue. The magazine first mentioned him in its April 1960 issue. A larger feature two months later called readers’ attention to his design for a new night look described as “a plaid overlay of baguette beads, worked on Argyll [sic] lines in navy-blue and clear crystal on a dress of white silk net” (Vogue June 1960). Also noted were its navy blue patent leather belt and “underplayed shaping….” This dress survives – albeit unlabeled and without the belt – in The Ohio State University Historic Costume & Textiles Collection.

Evening dress, courtesy The Ohio State University Historic Costume & Textiles Collection, 1986.162.15

Evening dress, courtesy The Ohio State University Historic Costume & Textiles Collection, 1986.162.15

Firestone ordered an iteration of the design with short sleeves and a more conventional gathered skirt. In December of 1961, a Bugnand design graced the Vogue cover, accompanied by enchanting copy, “In a season of stupendous night-looks, one of the greatest: a rangy net sweater, beaming with glitter and crystal, and pulled down on the hipline of a long white silk satin dress.” This garment also resides at Ohio State.

Evening overblouse, courtesy The Ohio State University Historic Costume & Textiles Collection, 1986.162.24

Evening overblouse, courtesy The Ohio State University Historic Costume & Textiles Collection, 1986.162.24

Broad Base

Despite having salons on both sides of the Atlantic, a growing list of clients, and accolades from the fashion press, Bugnand did not rely solely on custom-made clothes to make ends meet. He also sold designs to manufacturers, though there is minimal documentation of those transactions. Some American department stores prided themselves on selling faithful copies of the latest Paris fashions. For example, at a fall 1960 event, Orbach’s showed “translations” of styles by Bugnand, Balenciaga, Givenchy, Grès, Nina Ricci, Cardin, Fabiani, and other designers, claiming they were “so exact…done with such unhurried perfection…they’re actually re-creations” (New York Times Sept. 14, 1960). A few months later, Bugnand announced his own ready-to-wear line named for the French national flag, the Tricolor Collection, which was targeted to select stores (Christian Science Monitor Nov. 7, 1960). When Bugnand began designing cocktail and evening dresses for the wholesale house, Sam Friedlander, in 1962, he stayed true to himself as a designer. According to the New York Times, “The beading and jet trim usually reserved for couture fashions trimmed moderately priced clothes” (June 12, 1962). Other designs for the manufacturer even included fur trim.

Consolidation

As the fashion world evolved, Bugnand continually revamped his business strategy to keep pace. Sometime in the mid-1960s, he closed the doors of his Paris salon and moved his entire business to New York, presumably to be closer to loyal clients such as Firestone and the socialite and philanthropist Judith Peabody (Mrs. Samuel P. Peabody). In 1965, the New York Times reported that Peabody –an avid supporter of the American Ballet Theater, New York Shakespeare Festival, and the Dance Theater of Harlem – had single-handedly “boosted the stock” of couturier Bob Bugnand by invariably appearing in his designs at parties and premieres (New York Times June 7, 1965).

Though it is unclear how Bugnand felt about leaving Paris to work full-time in the United States, the designer seems to have approached his work with good humor. The earliest dated garment with his signature New York label is the sequin-covered minidress dubbed Scuba Duba from 1968. [Image 11 WRHS 92.43.45a label] [Image 12 OHCT 1990.576.3]

New York label, author photo, Western Reserve Historical Society, 92.43.45

New York label, author photo, Western Reserve Historical Society, 92.43.45

Scuba Duba evening dress, 1968, courtesy The Ohio State University Historic Costume & Textiles Collection, 1990.576.3

Scuba Duba evening dress, 1968, courtesy The Ohio State University Historic Costume & Textiles Collection, 1990.576.3

He continued to create and show collections and worked closely with long-time clients. Bugnand sent Firestone sketches of new collections and custom designs and often offered suggestions, which she sometimes heeded. [Image 13 WRHS 92.43.46] In the summer of 1975, Bugnand shifted his course again by opening a shop in Westhampton, Long Island, where he sold ready-to-wear resort clothes along with his custom designs. He continued to create collections as late as 2001 and he died at age 81 in 2005. No obituary has surfaced.

Day coat, ca. 1971, author photo, Western Reserve Historical Society, 92.43.46

Day coat, ca. 1971, author photo, Western Reserve Historical Society, 92.43.46

Summary

This preliminary investigation shows that designer Bob Bugnand’s career reflects the changing realities of Paris couture from its “golden age” in the decade or so following World War II through the end of the century. Although he was steeped in the couture – or perhaps because he understood its realities – Bugnand committed himself to the world of fashion and all its unpredictability. His longevity seems to be due to a combination of passion, flexibility, resourcefulness, and a commitment to his clients, to whom he gave what they wanted and needed, in a way they felt good about. His designs never shock, occasionally amuse, and invariably appear effortless. “I am always happy,” he said, “when I have succeeded in making a woman look her best. I consider it a personal victory…” (Christian Science Monitor Nov. 7, 1960). Making a woman the focal point – rather than her clothes – earned Bugnand earned a loyal following.

Once again, I am grateful to Worn Through for the research award that facilitated my inquiry into designer Bob Bugnand. Likewise, I appreciate the dozens of generous individuals in museums, archives, auction houses, and vintage sales who fielded my inquiries and provided information and access to materials. I intend to publish an article on Bugnand’s career and would appreciate any additional leads you can provide. It is my hope the overlooked designer will soon receive the attention he deserves.

 

Sources

Bowles, Hamish. 2001.Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Bugnand, Bob Collection. Special Collections and FIT Archives, Gladys Marcus Library, Fashion Institute of Technology.

Firestone Family Papers. Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford.

Orr, Lois. 2006. “Elizabeth Parke Firestone: Her Couture Collection and Her Role as a Woman of Influence.” M.A. thesis, University of Akron. http://sc.akronlibrary.org/files/2010/12/Elizabeth-Parke-Firestone.pdf

Sotheby’s. 1991. Collectors Carousel: Including Couture Clothing from The Elizabeth Parke Firestone Collection and The Lydia Gordon Collection. Auction catalog for Dec. 19, 1991. New York: Sotheby’s.

2 Comments

Review: KNITWEAR Chanel to Westwood at FTM, London

Main image © Rachel Atkinson / mylifeinknitwear 2014 and used here with permission.

It was with some trepidation that I approached the exhibition Knitwear: Chanel to Westwood at the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey on a cold rainy Sunday last week.   The loud hint of a chronology in the exhibition title was less than appealing to what is arguably my constant critique of the historical overview as the failsafe curatorial approach to fashion and dress displays.   I wondered about which objects would be used, as well as which technological developments would be explored in more depth, given that the exhibition’s aim is to ‘chart the influence of art movements Pop, Punk and Deconstruction alongside new knitwear technologies and design innovation.’

A piece from Roisin McAtamney MA Digital Fashion collection

Upon walking in, I encountered a precursor in the form of a small display curated by Professor Sandy Black at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts, entitled Visionary Knitwear. A small display of contemporary knitwear from design graduates celebrates both fashion education and the continued relevance of knitwear to our daily dressed lives. I was particular enthralled by the work of Roisin McAtamney, Juliana Sissons and Sister by Sibling, all of whom show in their work a interesting juxtaposition between contemporary culture and historical influence. It was exciting to see knitwear as a dynamic form of textile and fashion design, studied to such a high level by these influential designers. I also liked the inclusion of examples produced by companies such as a pair of 2012 Nike Flyknits running shoes, drawing our attention to how important knitwear is as a technological innovation in the design of everyday goods.

Juliana Sissons fashion armour

This invigorating start to the larger exhibition was then followed up by a nice introductory display that demonstrates just how consistent  our interest in knitwear design is with the juxtaposition of two items in the same pattern; one from H&M and the other hand knitted in 1907.  This small opening display allowed me to reflect upon how and why it is that techniques and patterns continually resurface in everyday dress.

View of the main room, featuring sections Knit America Style, Crochet Your Way and the Cocktail Hour

However, further reflection and the hope of encountering knitwear through the lens of their emotional value and/or their associations with particular wearers, as proposed in the accompanying guide, fell short almost immediately as I found myself looking at a very straightforward chronological display of knitwear in the main room. Instead, there are just a few glimpses of how knitted items were made and what they felt like to be worn in amongst a rather basic timeline that could be found in most historical texts on knitwear, even Wikipedia, dare I say it.

Summary labels that make even the full sighted squint in an effort to read the inscrutable white capitalised text against a black, unforgiving background did not help. Due to a photography ban, it was not possible to capture these curious things.  I am not sure whether the curatorial team felt that the labels needed to be ‘modern’ in form as a contrast to the historical weight of the exhibition but whatever their rationale, I was glad they did not carry it through with the paper guide, which due to a more reader friendly combination of red, black and white meant I could still navigate my way through the various displays.

Display crates in the main room

The attempt to present knitwear in a more contemporary light may perhaps also explain the use of huge crates as display cases which frame the various ‘this is your life’ moments associated with knitwear in the 20th century. While one review lauded the way in which these semi-opened wooden cases suggested a sense of treasured garments being rediscovered, I found it difficult not to think of mothballs and the proliferation of East London cafes with similar DIY interiors.

Vogue shoot, February 1951. Photograph: Norman Parkinson/Vogue

Now, the need to make knitwear ‘modern’ or ‘now’ within the exhibition is interesting because what it reveals is some concern about the status of knitwear in today’s society. The curators and collectors are, arguable, not alone. The review of the exhibition by the Guardian’s Invisible Lady, a voice for older women interested in fashion, leads to much reminiscing about the demise of the knitting glory years and the constant low status bestowed upon knitwear in the face of haute couture and high fashion.  Yet, this does not seem to be shared by those involved in the designing and making of knitwear whom also visited the exhibition. Reading reviews by knitting enthusiasts Katy Evans and mylifeinknitwear remind us that this area of textile and fashion design is very much alive and well, with no intention of being laid to rest in some forgotten corner of our wardrobes.

Norman Parkinson, Vogue, February 1952

For me, it is the emphasis on presenting a chronology of knitwear that is problematic and which underpins the subsequent need to make small details in the exhibition appear ‘modern’ such as the labels and display cases. If the opportunity to debate the currency of knitwear, the shifts in production and consumption, technological developments and the philosophical concerns underlying its existence had framed the curatorial decisions, this exhibition would have better addressed the issue of knitwear being more than just a bag of old clothes on display.

The Fair Isle display

I am also confused by the arrangement of 150 knitwear examples because according to the exhibition information, the curators and collectors wanted to avoid a ‘historical overview’ and focus on ‘the emotions we invest in objects’. Unfortunately, one is completely overwhelmed by a chronological approach and very underwhelmed by the personal associations with these items. A good example of this was the display of Fair Isle garments where quantity and repetition took precedence over quality and association, making it very easy to disassociate from what looked like a bad Boden editorial.

Mark and Cleo Butterfield at the exhibition’s opening night

On closer look, it is possible to find evidence of these emotional investments, allowing me to see knitwear playing an active role in people’s lives, challenging the notion that no-one knits anymore or will care to in the future.   I was fascinated by the items that revealed just how interested their owners were in knitwear and the best examples of these were those shared by Mark and Cleo Butterfield, private collectors whose collection makes up most of what is on display.   To see Cleo’s very competent attempt to knit a Patricia Roberts pattern in the 1980s was to witness the immediacy of knitting and the effort made to ‘wear or create’ knitwear.

Les Sportives section featuring knitted swimwear

It would have been great to include more details like this as related to the earlier pieces, which might better locate the making and wearing of knitwear in our emotional memory. The display of knitted swimwear, for example, left me with so many questions concerning the experience of wearing these garments at the seaside. What did it feel like to wear wool in the water or while lying down on the pebbles? To what extent did these items sag and become heavy with the weight of salty liquids? How did that alter the experience of those wearing them? Was it embarrassing, hilarious, liberating?  Alternatively, there were many pieces on display that were machine knitted yet discussion around this means of production was largely absent. The exhibition seemed to miss these moments for further deduction, opting instead for an extended but static representation of knitted items.

The Novelty Factor section, highlighting 1970s interest in pop art and postmodern styling

So, in some ways, my initial feelings of trepidation were not without warrant. Knitwear Chanel to Westwood is not an exhibition that breaks new ground nor did it leave me wanting to pick up an implement and use it to start weaving two threads together. The historical examples are enjoyable to see but they are definitely more interesting when accompanied by a personal story or two.  Yes, the exhibition does capture some cultural and technological aspects of a knitwear timeline but it could have done so much more with this.  It wasn’t a badly spent Sunday wet afternoon, just perhaps a bit too quiet for my liking.

2 Comments