Book Review: “Stasis”


It is what they wear on their heads that receives the viewer, elaborately embroidered caps that bring to mind the 17th and 18th centuries, though they are a Danish style from the nineteenth. The shape of these caps will inevitably retain associations with childhood bonnets, demure femininity and hair-covering (to protect as well as to hide). For those not familiar with traditional Danish clothing, the photographs may conjure Vermeer’s young women and other famous Dutch portraits.

Trine Søndergaard’s new book, Stasis, is a compilation of three of her photographic series, Strude, Guldnakke, and Interiors. Sparse hallways and luminously grey windows of abandoned Danish mansions are interspersed with her portraits of young women in traditional Danish headwear and clothing. The two portrait series seem as though they could have been done simultaneously, with similar poses and composition, and they are both inquiries into the meanings of national and personal identity. But they have individual power that is only reinforced in a collection like this. It seems possible that the bonneted women could walk those halls, throw open those windows.

Immediate and still, the portraits require your attention despite the negative body language. I was so drawn to the intricate embroidery and construction of the caps in Guldnakke that I didn’t notice the young women’s clothing until the cultural and temporal contrasts made one jump out: in Guldnakke #9, a thick silver embroidered crown accented with white lace and bound with thick black ribbon of an intricate jacquard rose pattern is paired with a white lace top with black gothic lettering, underlined by a black spaghetti-strap tank and visible white bra straps.

"Guldnakke #9" from the "Goldnakke" series by Trine Søndergaard. Image copyright Trine Søndergaard.

“Guldnakke #9″ from the “Goldnakke” series by Trine Søndergaard. Image copyright Trine Søndergaard.

I paged back through and realized I had missed a faded t-shirt with an American flag motif, chain-store “jersey” t-shirts. The intention and intricacy of the headpieces, and possibly the repetitive-seeming nature of the poses, had encouraged me to flip through, noting the differences between each photograph but not those contained therein.

Originally, bonnets such as these were “traditional piece[s] of headwear for well-to-do women in the mid-nineteenth-century Danish countryside. This tradition has a fine touch to it, as the golden fabrics from which most of the caps were made were until then the privilege of royalty and nobility.” (12) Are these historic pieces, reconstructions? Does it matter?

"Bonnet" from Zealand, Denmark, late nineteenth century. From the collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

“Bonnet” from Zealand, Denmark, late nineteenth century. From the collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

As Mieke Bal notes in her accompanying text, “Different from the bonnets in the Strude series, which were characterized by a functional conception (protecting the women from the elements), those appear in the Guldnakke series share an ambition: they signify the ostentation of wealth.” (12) How does their pairing with modern, mass-market clothing coax meaning from the portraits, affect the choice to use each specific bonnet?

The portraits are faceless and nameless, although not uninviting; the wearers are all turned away from us but seem as though they could turn to face us at any moment. But they will not, and the bonnets, then, become the subjects, obscuring almost all natural identifying characteristics with their flat, teardrop faces. The women are “scaffolding for [the artist's] investigation.” Disregarding any socio-emotional reasons for posing the women this way, seeing the back of a garment or hat in art is special, although perhaps less so today. Bal compares Søndergaard’s work with that of Vilhelm Hammershøi, who was also interested in representing the back.

"Interior With Young Woman From Behind," Vilhelm Hammershøi, 1904. From the Randers Museum of Art, Denmark.

“Interior With Young Woman From Behind,” Vilhelm Hammershøi, 1904. From the Randers Museum of Art, Denmark.

Interspersed within the portraits, as well as between them, are the Interior shots. These are spaces, entrances and exitways, transitory but not in motion; a photograph from this series graces the cover [at top]. Bal ties the three together: “Both of her series of women wearing elaborate headresses–Strude and Guldnakke–and the series Interior, taken inside empty, abandoned buildings, refuse the exchange of gazes.” (8)

"Strude #13" from the series "Strude" by Trine Søndergaard, published by Hatje Cantz. Photograph copyright Trine Søndergaard.

“Strude #13″ from the series “Strude” by Trine Søndergaard, published in the book, “Stasis” by Hatje Cantz. Photograph copyright Trine Søndergaard.

In Strude, women are wrapped in fabric covering the hair and face instead of a structured and pleated cap. We may see faces in this series, although many are covered. There is a whiff of protest fashion in the visuals, with eyes the only visible feature on a darkly wrapped head, a two-piece balaclava. These scarves and face coverings are direct descendants of Danish folk dress from the island of FanøIn archival photographs, the women never seem to be without one scarf wrapped around the neck and another tied securely around the head, covering her hair. Søndergaard travelled to this small island off the west coast of Denmark to shoot Strude, although with the exception of the photo quality, the portraits do not betray a specific time or place. As part of a folk dress tradition, the head wraps are both very dated and “old fashioned” as well as being somewhat timeless, or at least suspended in time; they will never be fashionable, so they never will go out of style.

Fischers Trine (Anne Catherine Hansen) at home on Fanø, 1920s or 1930s (?). Photo: Hans Pors. From

Fischers Trine (Anne Catherine Hansen) at home on Fanø, 1920s or 1930s (?). Photo: Hans Pors. From

Young women in traditional dress, Fanø, c. 1911. From

Girls in traditional dress, Fanø, c. 1911. From

strude, strictly defined, is a face covering. Composed of one over- and one under-piece with holes cut for the eyes, this garment protected the wearer from strong wind and sun while working in the countryside:

A Danish woman in a "strude," a face covering to protect from wind and sun. Illustration: C.F. Lund, from Illustreret Tidende 1860.

A Danish woman in a “strude,” a face covering to protect from wind and sun. Illustration: C.F. Lund, from Illustreret Tidende 1860.

Søndegaard suggests that this series was inspired not only by an interest in an extant strude in a museum on Fanø, but also by a critical debate in Denmark at the time surrounding the wearing of veils by Muslim residents. What is provocative about covering a woman’s face and hair, and who may choose to do so?

"Strude 11" from the "Strude" series by Trine Søndergaard. Photograph copyright Trine Søndergaard.

“Strude 11″ from the “Strude” series by Trine Søndergaard. Photograph copyright Trine Søndergaard.

Although they are portraits in the sense that both Strude and Guldnakke are series of women’s necks, heads, and occasionally faces, these are unnamed personages. Folk dress is so tied to local identity (as well as national pride) that it has become iconic, and is rarely truly personalized in recreations today. The wearer becomes a vehicle for tradition, especially as very few (if any) wear these outfits other than on holidays. “Søndergaard deploys the medium of portraiture to make images of faces in which individuality is overshadowed by similarity. … Danish faces are hidden, turning away, or otherwise obscured.” (7)

She has chosen similar posing in earlier series, including Monochrome [2009], but the use of specific clothing in the series collected in Stasis adds another layer to the similarities and obscuration.

From the series "Monochrome Portraits" by Trine Søndergaard. Photograph copyright Trine Søndergaard.

From the series “Monochrome Portraits” by Trine Søndergaard. Photograph copyright Trine Søndergaard.


Published by German firm Hatje Cantz, the aesthetics of the book are as serene as the photographs, with large white spaces and a greyscale color scheme.

Layout of the book "Stasis" by Trine Søndergaard, published by Hatje Cantz.

Layout of the book “Stasis” by Trine Søndergaard, published by Hatje Cantz.

The photographs are printed in large format, featured on the right-hand page while facing a blank, white page. These many pages are bound on the right-hand side of the cover, which opens flat as a self-contained  for viewing the works.

View of the book "Stasis" by Trine Søndergaard, published by Hatje Cantz.

View of the book “Stasis” by Trine Søndergaard, published by Hatje Cantz.

There is an accompanying text mounted on the left. Its physical remove from the photographs themselves allow the reader to consult it–or not, read the academic critical essays first or last, focus on the artistic works or flip back and forth. I found that the side-by-side placement has another great function: one can open to the photograph referenced and keep the text open as well. Works best when the text is on the left.


I really liked Bal’s challenge to those seeking meaning in painting and portraiture, or a “why?”. Here she writes of Vermeer’s The Girl With the Pearl Earring [1665]:

Why would she have a pearl earring became a key question [sic]. The answer? She had to be a servant girl with whom the master is enamored, and so on. Let the romance begin. This romantic thinking endeavors to overwrite the one impossible explanation: that she, a simple girl, just possesses a pearl earring. (8)

Mostly because it questioned my own reading of the work, my desire to understand why these women were wrapped with calico and lace, why these traditional garments were being recreated or mimicked, and subsequently photographed. There must be a reason; these photographs are heavy with intention! The framing of the head, the repetition, the juxtaposition: I dutifully did the costume history research to figure it out. And this is probably how I prefer to interact with art, pleased with my knowingness and totally subscribing to the traditional hierarchies of knowledge, but I hardly think it’s the best way. How important it is it to be an informed audience? What will these photographs communicate without a previous familiarity with Danish folk dress?

Bal wonders, “[w]hat kind of discourse is this? Uninvited, I am detailing, and worse, judging, by calling the face beautiful, the face of another person who refrains from engaging in eye contact with me.” But as “[w]rong-headed as it was, the outcome of my compulsion to judge was neither wrong nor arbitrary. The image pushed me to do it.” (11)  I too felt the need to give my own analysis and experience of viewing the photographs here, drawn to use the works as documentation of material culture. What is it about her work that encourages these responses?

Bal’s essay goes so enthusiastically into art theoretical readings of the collected works that I felt it began to disconnect me from the photographs themselves. When is a ribbon just a ribbon, and when is it a commentary on balance and color theory? From thoughtful challenges and self-criticism she jumps into long, sometimes “wrong” descriptions of the clothing (as much as one can call another’s observation wrong): in an overwrought paragraph about intersecting lines and abstraction of colors, Bal suggests that the stripes of a printed jersey top are not printed but instead “bands of braided fabric” (I maintain that they are printed; bygones). This may be some conceptual, irrealistic observation of the fabric that I didn’t pick up on, similar to her allusive description of the same girl’s earring as a “perhaps blue, perhaps green pearl,” referencing her commentary on Vermeer earlier in the essay. The book benefits greatly from Bal’s essay, but some intermediary information might have been nice for newcomers like me. I imagine it was a very intentional choice on the part of the editors and publisher not to include descriptions and information from the artist; I admire the format and the primacy of the image. In any case, it’s plenty easy to look up interviews with the author, read her own artist’s statement on her website.

What does Stasis contribute to the discussion around the use and relevancy of historic dress and its role in identity production? With my background interest in Scandinavian folk dress, I was immediately drawn to the objects depicted, and the posing, the light, etc all came afterward. That Søndergaard named each series and each photograph with the name of the dress object is significant. With the exception of fashion photographs (which is hardly always about the garments), clothing can be incidental in art photography; here it nearly obfuscates the wearers. Stasis would be an excellent jumping-off point for a review of clothing used in art photography; there are dozens of books on fashion photography, and a range of books on fashion and art (is it?), but not enough that examine the use of dress as a function of art. (Leave tips about your favorite works on the subject in the comments section!)

Trine Søndergaard’s use of headwear from Danish folk dress and clothing history has produced simply beautiful, still photographs, with deep currents underneath. The thoughtful fashion historian will regard this work as a chance to challenge and revisit the fabrics and composition of our dress and textile histories, how certain garments or styles evolve over time–or not–and what their changing use means to us socially. Their meanings are never static–even if they can feel staid or stuffy. Portraits will always reflect the time in which the are produced, although they may express ideas and ideals instead of an “accurate” mirror image of popular style. This may include nineteenth-century painters dressing models in classical clothing to encourage a “timeless” and unbound reading of their genius, teenagers in the faddiest formal fashions for a prom photo, or using very specifically dated dress objects from a country’s history to examine our relationships with nationality, identity, and the self.


Lead Photo Credit: Cover of Stasis, by Trine Søndergaard. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2014.


Find more Book Reviews on Worn Through here!

Further Reading:

Watch a video interview with Søndergaard on the Louisiana Channel here. [English subtitles]

Andersen, Ellen. Folkedragter i Danmark. Copenhagen, 1952.

Bright, Susan, ed. Face of Fashion. London: National Portrait Gallery, 2007.

Brilliant, Richard. Portraiture. London: Reaktion, 1991.

Ditner, Judy, ed. Dress Codes: The Third ICP Triennial of Photo and Video.

Guggenheim Museum Soho. Art/Fashion. New York: 1996.

Kunstmuseum Wolfsberg. Art and Textile: Fabric as Material and Concept in Modern Art from Klimt to the Present. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2014.


Parisian Insights: Christie’s and Elsa Schiaparelli’s Personal Collection

Schiaparelli observing her own brand's fur coat and a Lanvin hat.

Schiaparelli observing her own brand’s fur coat and a Lanvin hat.

We are certainly enjoying a Schiaparelli moment: following the revival of the couture house by Diego della Valle seconded by Farida Khelfa and Marco Zanini and the Prada/Schiaparelli exhibition held at the MET in 2012, the auction house, Christie’s has organised an exceptional sale of her personal collection in Paris, on the 23rd January 2014.

Marisa Berenson, the granddaughter of the iconic 1930s fashion designer decided to let go of about 180 pieces illustrating the personal taste of Elsa Schiaparelli – an eccentric time capsule made of art pieces, furniture, sketches, clothing and accessories.

Jules Chéret - Folies Bergères, la Loie Fuller, 1893.

Jules Chéret – Folies Bergères, la Loie Fuller, 1893.

No need to play with suspense, the auction was a real success. The pre-sale estimate was doubled and reached a total of 1.686.250 €. In the sale’s top ten appear such pieces as a pair of carved marble leopards, an Alberto Giacometti lamp, Aubusson tapestries along photographies of the designer by Man Ray and Horst P. Horst. But fashion was not left aside as a Balenciaga plaid as well as an ensemble of Schiaparelli patterns reached elevated prices.

An ensemble of 1950s patterns.

An ensemble of 1950s patterns.

It is not the first time Christie’s delivers important fashion auctions (past memorable examples include Anna Piaggi or Vivienne Westwood’s personal collections) but it is the first time it takes place in Paris and no better time nor place could have been chosen at the peak of the haute couture season.

All that made the Italian fashion designer unique could be observed during the collection’s exhibition: her love for fantasy and surrealism – an art movement she deeply collaborated with, the close relationship between art and fashion – an association the auction house has ingenuously accounted with its presentation mingling fashion pieces and art objects, her strong taste for oriental aesthetics and the legendary shocking pink.

Probably Schiaparelli, Black Mink Hood, End of 1930s.

Probably Schiaparelli, Black Mink Hood, End of 1930s.

How interesting to inspect the inventive environment La Schiap lived in and what she loved to wear. Fashion wise, she definitely had a thing for furs (on the 49 fashion related lots, 12 are fur pieces), she also privileged oriental wear inspired by her Tunisian home and I can definitely imagine her lounging around in those vivid and precious tunics and dresses and finally, when it comes to the garments she would select from her personal brand, embroidered tops seemed to be favoured. How exciting to observe for real the ‘Astrologie’ collection with its key piece: a violet silk blouse embroidered by Lesage and the impressive 1940 beaded rodeo waistcoat that Karl Lagerfeld would have probably loved to have in his Paris/Dallas show.  I also fell deeply in love with an embroidered shocking pink bolero: a feminine and sensual matador.

Schiaparelli - Pink Wool, 1940.

Schiaparelli – Pink Wool, 1940.

As for the furniture and various objects that adorned her interior, there was definitely something of a Renaissance ‘cabinet de curiosités’ as Elsa Schiaparelli seemed to mix and match such a diverse selection of styles and influences: Art Deco met Baroque while French Second Empire blended with Louis XVI Chinoiseries…All these objects illustrate the eclectic almost bohemian-like setting the designer had created for herself. It is hard not to think that only such an avant-garde and creative personality could assume mixing so many different genres – the sign of the surrealist movement she felt connected to.

Wedding Kaftan (1930) against an Aubusson Tapestry.

Wedding Kaftan (1930) against an Aubusson Tapestry.

The auction also highlighted her artistic friendships with objects imagined by the sculptor Alberto Giacometti, the illustrators Christian Bérard and Marcel Vertès or the photographer Man Ray: a fascinating fragment of 1930s modernist art.

Marcel Vertès - Schocking, 1946.

Marcel Vertès – Schocking, 1946.

In the whole, along the obvious financial logic behind the auction (I must admit I’m always a little disturb by the fact that trustees sell off objects from their ancestors like this), it was also a formidable situation for us curious historians to take a closer look at the intimate life of a famed fashion designer. Although we may have read numerous books or visited exhibitions that explained her work, we definitely got to know Elsa Schiaparelli better through her intimate collection that not only highlighted her inspirational taste but also brought us on a journey through her times’ contemporary art scene.

I do hope, as it happens in London and New York, this will make Parisian auction houses organise further major couture and fashion sales as we clearly miss them here!

Exotic Wall.

Exotic Wall.

Further Resources:

You can browse the auction’s catalogue on Christie’s website.

Take a look at Heather Vaughan’s post about the designer.

Rediscover the MET’s exhibition uniting Miuccia Prada and Elsa Schiaparelli

Read her autobiography: Schiaparelli, Elsa. Shocking Life. London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 2007.

Discover Showstudio’s Conversation between Hubert de Givenchy and Marisa Berenson.


From the Archives: The Anthropology of Immigration

This post was originally from July 2013.

backpacks richard barnes nyt

This past Sunday, the New York Times Magazine featured photographs of objects left behind by South American immigrants crossing the border into America. Jason De Léon directs the  “Undocumented Migration Project,” which collects, catalogues, photographs, and exhibits these “things they carried” and oral histories as witness to the experience, which De Léon describes as violent and traumatizing, comparing it to the forced migration of Africans earlier in the history of the United States.

The photographs featured in the Times are a mix of those taken by collaborator Richard Barnes in situ, and of objects exhibited out of context, en masse at the University of Michigan (where De Léon is an Assistant Professor in Anthropology). Combining video, photographs, and found objects, “The State of Exception” was the first exhibition of the UMP’s years of work. Whether in the “wild” or arranged in a blank museum space, the massive accumulation of objects (clothing, backpacks, shoes) highlights the personal, human side of this experience and obviates the scale of northern migration.

This method may not be moving to all, as this anthropological study uses material culture to expose and explore a very controversial topic. But a well-worn axiom of our field is that clothing is common to the human experience, and children’s dirty, abandoned backpacks featuring Dora the Explorer and other cartoon characters tug at the heartstrings. De Léon notes that within a day’s walk of the border, he finds mostly water bottles and other objects we generally think of as disposable, impersonal. Would exhibited photographs of those be as moving? Or might they look like a bunch of trash (perhaps further stigmatizing those left them)? What is different about clothes, shoes, backpacks? Where do Bibles and pictures of one’s family fall on this scale?

Although a comparison of the two experiences is inappropriate, these photographs reminded me of the documentation of victims in the Holocaust Museum. The infamous pile of shoes, ironically, serves not to put a face to the vast, unimaginable suffering, but rather to show how anonymous people can become.

richard barnes clothes riverbed
Photograph by Richard Barnes, part of the exhibition “State of Exception,” published in the New York Times Magazine July 21, 2013.

What is it about a pile? De Léon encounters piles of all kinds of things when he began his anthropological study, and in interviews often mentions the “worn-out shoes” he finds–especially the tiny ones. As an anthropologist, De Léon sees his job as making these anonymous objects personal, in order to understand the migrating people individually, as a group, and also to expose some realities of the experience to those who may see the immigration issue abstractly. The Smithsonian plans to accession these objects collected by the UMP in the summer of 2014.

What do piles or masses of objects communicate to the visitor in a museum setting? Are real, tangible (but untouchable) objects in a museum building more moving than photographs of the objects where they were found? Or vice versa? Is this a manipulative practice, or a realistic one? Have you seen this exhibition, or have you been to other exhibitions using large volumes of material culture that have stuck with you (for better or worse)?

Please leave your comments below!

Photo Credit: Richard Barnes for the NYT, 2013.


Domestic Affairs: Jewels, and Lace, and Grace Kelly… Oh my!

Sophia Loren 1960

The first word to come to mind when trying to organize my thoughts and impressions regarding the de Young’s exhibition, The Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita & Beyond, 1950 – 1990, is ‘stunning’. That seems a bit obvious and unoriginal, but that is the only way to describe this amazing combination of dress history, opulence, and phenomenal use of technology in an exhibition. The second word that comes to mind is ‘crowded’. This was frustrating when trying to see the individual cases, but at the same time I found it quite gratifying that yet again, a dress exhibition was pulling in as many visitors as the David Hockney exhibition downstairs which is in its final week. Its popularity also proves something I have long suspected of human beings: we really are magpies.

I confess that jewellery, while beautiful, has never been a major focus of my own research. I’ve always been more interested in fabric and cultural borrowing and colonialism (because life is apparently not depressing enough), and never particularly found jewellery interesting. However, I had a revelation at this exhibition that I have only ever had a few times in my life — when I saw my first Jackson Pollock, Marc Chagall, and Frida Kahlo paintings — that there are some things that simply cannot be appreciated through photographs: they must be seen in person in order to understand their beauty and allure.

This was what happened to me at ‘The Art of Bulgari’. I had gone because it was the big, annual exhibition at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF), and because I knew I should do a write up for Worn Through. I did not expect to walk out with the catalogue any more than I expected to dream of pure, exquisite colour for the next two nights, but that’s what I did.


Parure, 1955–1956
Gold and platinum with
sapphires, rubies, and diamonds
Necklace: 42 x 4 cm
Earrings: 6 x 2 cm
Bracelet: 18 x 3 cm
Private collection

Brought in by the European Decorative Arts department, the exhibition begins with projections of the jewellery floating across a pure black background as you enter the textile galleries. I have been in these galleries so often that I have the space memorized, and the exhibition design rather awed me. It completely transformed the space so that it actually took me quite some time to get my bearings, creating five rooms where I knew there had only been one. More than that, by going with completely black walls on to which projections could be shown with amazing clarity and colour, they created an intimate feeling without feeling crowded or claustrophobic. It also made the display cases set in these walls in and of themselves jewellery boxes: there was a feeling of anticipation as you entered the second room, and the crowds parted to reveal bright, white, dazzling groupings of the tremblant brooches that first made the house famous.

Giardinetto brooch, ca. 1959 Gold and platinum with emeralds, rubies, and diamonds 5 x 5 cm Bulgari Heritage Collection, inv. 5000 P206 © Antonio Barrella Studio Orizzonte Roma

Giardinetto brooch,
ca. 1959
Gold and platinum with
emeralds, rubies, and diamonds
5 x 5 cm
Bulgari Heritage Collection,
inv. 5000 P206
© Antonio Barrella Studio Orizzonte Roma


Tremblant brooch, 1962
Platinum with yellow and
white diamonds
9.5 x 5 cm
Bulgari Heritage Collection,
inv. 4998 P154
© Antonio Barrella Studio Orizzonte Roma

All of the text panels were done on giant flat screens, a subtle way in which the feeling that everything glowed was actually enhanced. This is also the first time I have ever seen visitors reading all of the text panels all the way through. There were also several such panels that  showed images of celebrities both past and present wearing Bulgari jewels in a loop. My impression was that the celebrities and models paled in comparison to the actual jewellery you could see, so I can’t really tell you who was featured in these parades of images other than the obvious actresses: Monica Vitti and Elizabeth Taylor. The exhibition also utilized technology to show even more pieces through digital ‘books’ that patrons could turn pages in to reveal an image of new necklace or other amazing creation. In the next to last room, which displayed the Elizabeth Taylor collection, the images on these pages even climbed a special wall so that they could be seen by everyone, not just the patron using the book. The integration of all these new tools was absolutely seamless, and greatly appreciated by the visitors — there were lines for several of the text panels and books in the same way there were lines for the pieces themselves. There were also several cases that used themed holographic projections before revealing a single, beautiful item, usually a brooch.

ElizabethTaylor_Fisher_ 1962

Eddie Fisher adjusting his wife’s Bulgari tremblant brooch, Rome, 1961. Photo: © Bettmann/CORBIS.

In addition to the display cases in the walls (all of which were lined with a white background that had a subtle sparkle to it), there were individual pedestals in the centre of each room showing sets, be they necklace, bracelet, and earrings, or necklace, brooch, and table clock.

The exhibition was divided up largely by decades. The first display room dealt with pieces from the 1950s and 1960s, the second with the 1960s and 1970s, the third was dedicated to the Elizabeth Taylor pieces (there was a platinum with sapphire cabuchon sautoir with matching ring that I’m sure would look lovely on me!), and the last room dedicated to pieces from the 1980s and 1990s. Within these rooms, the pieces were grouped by types: tremblant brooches, sautoir necklaces, tubogas, etc. This was remarkably helpful to me, since until this exhibition I had never actually been sure what a cabuchon jewel was, so it was not only beautiful to look at, it was extremely educational. It also helped that I went through with my mother who gave me a crash course in how to recognize clarity and flaws in jewels — an easy task with such large examples to illustrate the concepts.

Bracelet, 1972 Platinum with turquoise and diamonds 17.8 x 1.9 cm Collection of Jennifer Tilly Photograph by Zale Richard Rubins

Bracelet, 1972
Platinum with turquoise
and diamonds
17.8 x 1.9 cm
Collection of Jennifer Tilly
Photograph by Zale Richard Rubins

Necklace, ca. 1978 Gold with Florentine Renaissance silver coin and diamonds 40 x 4.5 cm Bulgari Heritage Collection, inv. 347898 N2175 © Antonio Barrella Studio Orizzonte Roma

Necklace, ca. 1978
Gold with Florentine
Renaissance silver coin
and diamonds
40 x 4.5 cm
Bulgari Heritage Collection,
inv. 347898 N2175
© Antonio Barrella Studio Orizzonte Roma

28. Necklace and pendant earrings, 1967 Gold with sapphires, emeralds, rubies, and diamonds Necklace: 32.5 x 7.3 cm Earrings: 7.3 x 2.8 cm Formerly in the collection of Mayrink Veiga Bulgari Heritage Collection, inv. 5125 N1397, 5140 E1562 © Antonio Barrella Studio Orizzonte Roma

28. Necklace and pendant
earrings, 1967
Gold with sapphires, emeralds,
rubies, and diamonds
Necklace: 32.5 x 7.3 cm
Earrings: 7.3 x 2.8 cm
Formerly in the collection of
Mayrink Veiga
Bulgari Heritage Collection,
inv. 5125 N1397, 5140 E1562
© Antonio Barrella Studio Orizzonte Roma

I’m afraid I lost count of the number of objects featured in the exhibition, largely because I was too busy oggling all the shiny — I, too, am apparently a magpie. Thankfully the press release tells me there were over 150 pieces. The layout was truly masterful because even with so many pieces, and the projections, and the backgrounds of full-colour design sketches, and the holograms I did not leave feeling overwhelmed by the colours or the glamour. I actually left wanting more.

33. Brooch, 1969 Gold and platinum with turquoise, sapphires, and diamonds 5 x 5 cm Bulgari Heritage Collection, inv. 4992 P111 © Antonio Barrella Studio Orizzonte Roma

33. Brooch, 1969
Gold and platinum with
turquoise, sapphires,
and diamonds
5 x 5 cm
Bulgari Heritage Collection,
inv. 4992 P111
© Antonio Barrella Studio Orizzonte Roma

What I came away with was an deep admiration for the house of Bulgari’s design mastery, and their amazing sense of colour. Not only did they manage to move with the times and fashion, they managed to remain recognizably ‘Bulgari’ as they changed. The integration of Renaissance coins, precious and semi-precious stones, gold with silver, and being able to move between cut gems and cabuchons — sometimes three, even four different colours — to capture the same ambiance as the fashion the jewellery was worn with was truly awe-inspiring. The exhibition proved Andy Warhol correct when he said, ‘I always visit Bulgari because it is the most important museum of contemporary art’.

Princess Grace of Monaco, wearing a Bulgari gold coin-set necklace, in Monte Carlo, 1978. Photo: © Jack Nisberg/Roger-Viollet.

Princess Grace of Monaco, wearing a Bulgari gold coin-set necklace, in Monte Carlo, 1978. Photo: © Jack Nisberg/Roger-Viollet.

Flounce, 17th century Italy Linen needle lace (gros point de Venise) Museum collection X1989.320

Flounce, 17th century
Linen needle lace (gros point de Venise)
Museum collection

After leaving ‘Bulgari’ I stopped in the T. B. Walker Foundation Textile Education Gallery, where a smaller exhibition, ‘Lace: Labor andLuxury’, was on display. Curated by Kristen Stewart, there were 12 pieces including both examples of lace from FAMSF’s collection and portraits of men and women wearing lace from the Achenbach collection of prints. Kristen’s goal was to place lace in the context of fashion history, and she definitely succeeded through the combination of etched portraiture from the seventeenth century, and a painting from the nineteenth century, and examples of needle, bobbin, and machine lace. There was an exquisite nineteenth-century jacket of chantilly lace that greeted the visitor as they entered the gallery that I have fallen head over heels in love with.

Robert White (English, 1645–1703) After Pieter van Sickeleers, called Saturnus (Flemish, active 17th century) Portrait of Francis Morosini, 17th century Engraving Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts 1963.30.11134

Robert White (English, 1645–1703)
After Pieter van Sickeleers, called Saturnus (Flemish, active 17th century)
Portrait of Francis Morosini, 17th century
Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts

Through careful selection of a mixture of objects Kristen showed not only the long history of this now-neglected art, but also the wearing of it by both men and women to demonstrate taste and wealth. The exhibition, though small, was as popular as the Bulgari exhibition, with nearly everyone wandering through the Education gallery to see it after shopping the Bulgari store. I also found the pairing of ‘Lace’ with ‘The Art of Bulgari’ was an amazing way to show that while the methods of conspicuous luxury have changed, the practice itself has been with us as long as fashion has. With both exhibitions, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco demonstrated just how amazing, educational, and appealing to broad audiences dress and textile exhibitions can be.

Cap back, early 18th century France Linen needle lace (point d’Alençon) Gift of Mrs. Hans Benedict 53.39.19

Cap back, early 18th century
Linen needle lace (point d’Alençon)
Gift of Mrs. Hans Benedict


This week I end with the announcement of the final weeks to see the Grace Kelly Style exhibition at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The exhibition closes next week, on 26 January. My heart-felt thanks to Hollie Brown who informed me of the exhibition and its imminent closure through email. This is one of those moments where I desperately wish I had an endless travel budget.

Please do not hesitate to email me your exhibition and other event announcements you would like promoted here, or simply leave links in the comments. Next week I will be assisting with the installation of the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles’ new ‘Metamorphosis’ exhibition, an experience and review I will share with you on 5 February!

Many thanks to Clara Hatcher and Kristen Stewart of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco for images and insights.

Opening image caption: Sophia Loren in a Bulgari parure of cabochon sapphires and rubies highlighted with diamonds, 1960.
Photo: Archivi Farabola


Parisian Insights: The Palais Galliera’s Website

Today, to enter 2014 with a light spirit, I have to present a ‘mea culpa’! I often despise the lack of well coordinated and thorough online resources when it comes to French fashion and costume museums as I harshly did in my post about the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent Archives, arguing the Musée Galliera did not even have a proper website. Well, things have changed and I must admit I secretly imagined they have heard my many complaints…

Today, even though it is not pitch-perfect yet (but it’s a good start!), the Palais Galliera proposes an interesting and clear website on which, and that’s what I was mostly looking for, you can discover a few notable pieces from their rich collections. I know how prosperous and beautiful the museum’s storage rooms are and how I longed for this to happen. Of course, as I said: we’re only at the very start of a new movement, probably coinciding with the museum’s reopening, and only a little number of garments are pictured and documented but I’m glad nonetheless there’s a little something to eat.

I appreciate the minimalist and elegant aspect of the website that precisely narrates the story of the museum’s making, its history, its collections.

The Collections are organised within different categories: 18th Century Dress – 19th Century Costumes – Fashion of the first half of the 20th Century – Haute Couture – Contemporary Fashion – Undergarments – Accessories – Prints and Drawings – Photographies.

Each department is introduced by an engaging presentation that summarizes the key information that is to be known about the collection’s pieces. Simple and brief material, surely insufficient for researchers and professionals but an appropriate highlight for the public in general whom is given an insight on what happens behind the curtains.

Here are a few of my favourite works I explored on the museum’s website:

Each piece is precisely described and its story, when known, clearly told. I appreciate we are given the information on how the object made it into the collections.

Casaquin - 1730-1740 Orange Silk, Blue Lining, Gilded Silver Lace Belonged to a member of the house of Ligne. Palais Galliera

Casaquin – 1730-1740
Orange Silk, Blue Lining, Gilded Silver Lace
Belonged to a member of the house of Ligne.
Palais Galliera

Coat - 1813 Red Silk Velvet, Silver Lamé Thread, Sequins and Cannetilles   Embroidery Belonged to Marshal Bertrand, under Napoleon.

Coat – 1813
Red Silk Velvet, Silver Lamé Thread, Sequins and Cannetilles Embroidery
Belonged to Marshal Bertrand, under Napoleon.

An exquisite example of fashion meets art meets history:

Fragonard Evening Dress - Vivienne Westwood - SS 1991

Fragonard Evening Dress – Vivienne Westwood – SS 1991

I love that the Palais Galliera chose to present most objects with photographies taken within the storage rooms. It brings a je-ne-sais-quoi industrial feel. There is something very aesthetic in placing their stunning and delicate garments against a modernist steel background. It’s a radical choice that places the dress very far from their original contexts and use while it however installs them firmly within their present context, that is the museum and its ghostly yet romantic storage rooms.

Waistcoat over a giant Singlet - Maison Martin Margiela - SS 1990

Waistcoat over a giant Singlet – Maison Martin Margiela – SS 1990

The collections’ photographies, especially for the contemporary garments, are the result of a veritable mise-en-scène. Some pieces are even shown against the Palais’ exterior colonnade. A seductive decision that roots the objects in a playful and dramatic environment just like a fashion photo shoot would do with models. I wrote, above, that the storage room images placed the garments as museum objects, when the images taken outside or within other spaces of the Palais seem to bring them to life again. These online resources’ photographies themselves set the debate on conserved dress as ‘living’ fashion item or/and ‘dead’ museum object.

I have, unfortunately, not found the name of the photograph (s) who have worked on this project. I would have loved to as I really love the result…and they deserve to be quoted.

Drawing Maison Jacques Heim - AW 1959-1960

Drawing Maison Jacques Heim – AW 1959-1960

The online resources also provide the public with documentation such as drawings and contextual photographies.

Photography by Otto - Countess Greffuhle - 1887

Photography by Otto – Countess Greffuhle – 1887

The presence of museums and their collections online are to me essential: they are an indispensable tool to professionals and bring art into the living rooms of those who don’t or cannot pay a visit to their real-life spaces. I highly appreciate that French museums are (finally!) making an effort. We haven’t reached the standards of a MET or a V&A yet but I do hope this is only the very beginning of a profound reflection and questioning. 

Do you agree? Do you think online resources are as important as I tend to think? Do you use them much?


Global Mode: Secondhand Luxury

Whether watered down by not-so-exclusive brands, discouraged by the government as in China after recent corruption scandals, or suffering from disillusionment among consumers, “luxury” has lost some of its aspirational allure. Quality in material and construction, tradition, and exclusivity are traditional defining characteristics, but luxury has been denigrated to self-pleasure and indulgence, stripped to facsimile expressions of wealth and exclusivity.

Webinar offered by MSLK in 2009. From their website.

Webinar offered by MSLK in 2009. From their website.

What it has retained is an association with the new, for better or worse. But as reuse and recycling become hip and take on increasingly positive connotations, there are signs that second-hand clothes and leftovers can exist within the luxury sphere. AnOther Magazine recently published an interview with Pascale Mussard, who runs the métier Pétit h, an offshoot of ultra-luxury Hermès that uses its seconds, scraps, and other materials that don’t meet the brand’s astronomical standards.  I can imagine that includes quite a bit of material, and it’s exciting to learn they are putting it to good use. Artisans and artists create clothing, installations, and art work, which are shown through installations in fashion capitals throughout Europe. These pieces are also for sale, and sell out regularly. While created from cast-offs, the materials are necessarily of the highest quality, having been purchased by Hermès in the first place. The art objects also have the honor of being one-off, unique items; luxury is nothing if not exclusive. And the AnOther article was sure to mention Mussard’s family connections: she is a descendant of the founder, Thierry Hermès, which confers long-held notions of the inheritability of taste.

Screenshot from the Petit h website, December 2013.

Screenshot from the Petit h website, December 2013.

While reusing leftover luxury materials to create exclusive pieces of art is far leap from the perhaps kitschy or crafty connotations of “reuse” and “upcycling,” this ecothink is becoming fashionable. There are interesting links to the evolving second-hand clothing market, which has been dragged out of the mire of pay-by-the-pound and used clothing into a bright, dry-cleaned, Vintage future. The websites The Real Real and Closet Rich, among many, many, many others, are well-known for having changed people’s attitudes about buying “used clothing.” They often self-describe using buzzwords like “authentic” and “designer,” the meanings of which have been diluted to homeopathic levels from overuse. Many of the items available on these websites have been used/worn at least once–although some not at all–and feature high-fashion labels. Until niche stores like What Comes Around and Decades were established, secondhand stores did not offer designer clothing except by providence for the patient thrifter. With the advent of the websites, the shopper is additionally no longer limited to what he or she can find locally, but may purchase globally. Despite apparent advantages, buying luxury items online negates my idea of the luxury experience, which includes good service, a pleasing atmosphere, a flexible return policy. But is shopping for luxury more about the object itself than how it was obtained? Does the anonymity of the internet brush away any remaining crumbs of shame associated with secondhand shopping?

Interior of Fillipa K Second Hand store on Hornsgatan in Stockholm, 2013. From their website.

Interior of Fillipa K Second Hand store on Hornsgatan in Stockholm, 2013. From their website.

Here, along the concrete sidewalks of Stockholm, Fillipa K has its own second-hand store that carries previously owned (begagnad) garments from the brand and select other vintage items in a curated milieu, often on consignment. Down the street, a few of the classic, less-well-groomed charity thrift stores that I love also work a vintage/luxury/more expensive angle: the Emmaus boutique in Södermalm is known for its little vintage shop in the basement below, where they have selected specific items for sale at higher prices. These garments usually exhibit exclusive characteristics: designer label, vintage, finer materials.

The window of the Red Cross [Röda Korset] boutique on Hornsgatan in Stockholm, 2013. From their Facebook page, November 2013.

The window of the Red Cross [Röda Korset] boutique on Hornsgatan in Stockholm, 2013. From their Facebook page, November 2013.

Recently, the Red Cross has expanded its business of selling used clothing as a means of supporting its charitable works to include an intensely boutiquey location in hip Södermalm, with artsy window displays by local fashion students and designers, exclusively chosen selection of designer clothing plucked from donations, and sparse interior design. In contrast to the Emmaus boutique that trades on vintage, the Red Cross store is focused on more current pre-owned fashion and designer goods, similar to the websites discussed above. The organization recently announced on their Facebook page that they opened a pop-up shop in the airport early this month (which now has its own Facebook page). Reuters reports that luxury brands are strengthening their profiles in airports, and that Sweden offers a secondhand shop along with the expanses of duty free gives visitors a specific first (or last) impression. Rather than simply a Scandinavian practicality, I would argue that it shows an eco-friendly sensibility and a certain modevetenhet (fashionability).

Can “true” luxury be second-hand? How does an authentic, pre-owned (although possibly aftermarket) piece compare with an on-trend, current fake? The shopping experience is part and parcel for many luxury shoppers; does an artsy set-up mimicking high-priced boutiques generate sales for these charity shops and their organizations, or is it the “curated” selection that draws customers?  Can these stores bring luxury back to philanthropy?

Do you see secondhand luxury where you live, whether among your friends or in the commercial sector? Do you buy luxury items secondhand, or would you consider it? Would you prefer online shopping or in a brick-and-mortar store? How have the meanings of “used,” “secondhand,” and “vintage” changed in your experience? Leave your comments below!


Further Reading

Cervellon, Marie-Cecile. “Conspicuous Conservation: using semiotics to understand sustainable luxury” International Journal of Market Research 55, 2013.

Dahlström, AnnikaWow–Jag kan bidra. AD Ecotextil, 2013.

Ricci, Manfredi and Rebecca Robins. Meta-Luxury. New York: Palmgrave MacMillan, 2012.

Roux, Dominique and Michaël Korchia. “Am I What I Wear? An Exploratory Study of Symbolic Meanings Associated with Secondhand Clothing” Advances in Consumer Research 33, 2006. [great bibliography!]

Thomas, Dana. Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre. New York: Penguin Press, 2007.

Rachael also recently wrote a great post for WT that gathered some new scholarship on vintage, which articles I look forward to reading.


Parisian Insights: Miss Dior

Last week ended what had been 10 days of a highly publicised and successful exhibition, Miss Dior at the Grand Palais. To celebrate the 66th anniversary (I must admit I didn’t know these birthdays were meant to be celebrated!) of the perfume’s launch, the Dior house organised a major display combining historical review and contemporary art commissions. The entrance was free and the exhibition had gained such publicity that numerous visitors attended the show that was, I must say, quite beautiful.

Raf Simons - Dior Haute Couture 2012 Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

Raf Simons – Dior Haute Couture 2012
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

As I said, the interesting aspect of this exposition is that it handled patrimonial questions, presenting the perfume’s history and a few key moments concerning the fashion house, and it highlighted conceptual art installations specially commissioned near 15 contemporary feminine artists reinterpreting the Miss Dior codes.

Various themes organised the space. As an introduction, to somehow justify the reunion between art and fashion within this exhibition, the luxury house evoked Christian Dior’s first job as an art dealer and his strong friendship with some of the pre-war most major artists. Therefore, were presented art works by Bernard Buffet or Marc Chagall and personnel mementos, photographies, letters…that illustrated the future couturier’s close collaboration with the surrealist movement. This space was placed on an upper open floor overlooking the rest of the exhibition: it pushed the visitor to look upon the 15 contemporary art pieces with a different feeling, a sense of continuity…You could then come down a few steps into the exposition and explore what linked the past and the present.

 Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

The exhibition also clearly illustrated the powerful influence of flowers on Christian Dior’s work, infused by his childhood Normandie mansion or his Provençal home. An influence illustrated by the couturier’s creations that resembled flower bouquets – objects such as garments and drawings helped demonstrate this effect- and epitomized by the perfume’s scent.

The perfume was imagined by Christian Dior as a loving declaration to his sister, Catherine who had miraculously come back from deportation after she had been arrested for her activities in the French resistance. Miss Dior was launched the same year as, the now iconic 1947 collection: the New Look was accompanied by a new, impertinent scent that depicted the young, beautiful and audacious women the couturier liked to surround himself with: from his assistants to seductive celebrities. The display at that point, presented images of legendary muses such as Marlène Dietrich or Elizabeth Taylor and more recent faces such as Marion Cotillard and Natalie Portman: that was the exhibition’s celebrity moment! Besides this informative and somewhat gently frivolous documentation stood a Bar tailored ensemble, an emblematic symbol of the New Look and, how lovely it looked.

Bar Ensemble, Dior 1947 Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

Bar Ensemble, Dior 1947
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

The scenography  installed a pertinent dialogue between the house’s archives and contemporary art, the present constantly making reference to the past. The visitor jumped from a 1950s René Gruau illustration to an installation by Ionna Vautrin, from the Bar garment to Sofia Coppola’s advertisement video: the display efficiently mingled history with a contemporary concept. The most stunning example was a delicate 1949 bustier dress by Christian Dior, entirely covered by precious pastel flowers confronted to Raf Simon’s 2012 version of the garment, which he turned into a profound black piece worn by Natalie Portman in the Miss Dior ad, all was united: patrimony, contemporary fashion, publicity and the celebrity factor.

Christian Dior, 1949 Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

Christian Dior, 1949
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

Raf Simons for Dior, 2012 Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

Raf Simons for Dior, 2012
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

The display was thus regularly punctuated by the art installations imagined by 15 feminine contemporary artists who had all created art works that refered to Miss Dior. Polly Apfelbaum was inspired by the perfume’s hound’s tooth motif to create a colourful carpet, Carole Benzaken reinterpreted the perfume’s bottle into a graceful glass sculpture surrounded by forest landscapes, Alyson Shotz worked on a digital rose and Joanna Vasconcelos designed a gigantic pink bow epitomizing the juvenile spirit of Miss Dior… just to cite a few.

I much appreciated the dialogues between these feminine artists and the perfume. They all managed to convey new questions, new concepts looking at women, the body, nature, history, patterns…A fruitful and complete collaboration.

Alyson Schotz - Infinite Rose, 2013 Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

Alyson Schotz – Infinite Rose, 2013
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

Obviously, I could not end this article without raising THE question: was this an art display or just a perfect marketing concept? Well, I’d say: both! While visiting the space, you could not ignore that all this was an ode to Dior, an ode to a consumption object, an ode to a bottle of perfume. There was something quite disturbing when you really thought about it…All the panels, although they did provide historical information, did however insist on Miss Dior, the product and some sentences resembled press releases: ‘Her perfume is nothing else than Miss Dior, the one she wears with passion.’, ‘Miss Dior is an olfactory conversation that will continue all the house’s creations, from Diorissimo to J’Adore..’ You had to look at all this with much distance….

Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

However, let’s not just focus on this idea. Art and Fashion have been united for years, decades…it was considered fabulous when Elsa Schiaparelli would team up with Salvador Dali, Gabrielle Chanel with Jean Cocteau…Why should it disturb us today? Because our dear friend marketing has now taken over. We now look at art and fashion collaborations with a suspicious eye: brands obviously do this to gain respectability and as judicious communication tools. Yes, brands now use their patrimony to give sense and profoundness to their commercial concepts…But, why not? If this provides us, the public, with seductive campaigns and exhibitions: why complain?

It would be naive not to remark that the exhibition took place a few weeks before Christmas and its gifts’ shopping, to not consider the impact the show will have on the house’s image. It was definitely a seductive communication operation but how brilliantly coordinated it was! I surely think the Dior house actually clearly assumed that all this was a formidable publicity and I quite appreciate this honest assurance.

Maria Nepomuceno - Delilah, 2012-2013 Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013

Maria Nepomuceno – Delilah, 2012-2013
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013


If I had only focused on the negative marketing aspects of the exposition, it would have clearly been a real shame for me to miss the beautiful archives the house exceptionally presented and the 15 installations produced by some of  design and contemporary art major actors: all this for free! I preferred to please my eyes over controversy!


Book Review: African Dress

african dress cover

They gave him garments of servitude, which he imagined the candid cloak of the martyr

Oh naïve! Natively naïve! Fez and boots for his free domesticated feet…

He rids himself of his collar–his tie hides the sweat soaking his shirt–of his somber jacket.

He leans over a second plain saturated with fezzes and blood. (179)

From Léopold Senghor, “The Despair of a Free Volunteer”, cited in “Photography, Poetry, and the Dressed Bodies of Léopold Sédar Senghor” by Leslie Rabine.

Analysis of the life and work of a well-known Senegalese poet is one of the many observative approaches to the titular subject of African Dress. Offering the authority of a host of PhDs in African and dress-related subjects, this book offers a compendium of essays broad in scope and focused in nature. Arranged in four Parts, they begin under the rubric of “Dressed Bodies and Power,” move through “Material Culture, Visual Recognition and Display” and “Connecting Worlds Through Dress,” and finish with “Transculturated Bodies.” Of course, many could easily fall under more than one of these headings; as one authors notes, “clothing, after all, is complicated.” (77) In these sections you will find: the lightness and frivolity and deadly seriousness of colorful textiles that are local, imported, or both; politics; incarnations of the veil; military history; traditional and modern embroideries; colonialism; fashion photography; Obama; poetry; and travel. Lots of gender, some sexuality, very little on non-traditional gender identities or diverse sexualities, but the lack reflects the nature of the societies observed. Questions and conflict surrounding religious dress abound, as these are common and public topics in the featured countries.

Senegal is most often represented, along with Nigeria and Ghana; West Africa dominates the scholarship. While each of the essays is located in a specific city (or two), sartorial expression is a complicated construction, and ethnicities and religions that don’t conform to geographic boundaries often manifest as stronger influences than national identity. The figural, modern “Ghana Boy” embroidered tunics Victoria Rovine contrasts with the traditional, Islamic tilbi garments in Mali belong to a group of young men who define themselves more by travel, experiences, and age than by country of origin. Tina Mangieri’s work most explicitly studies this local/Islamic/Western collision felt by Swahili Muslim men who live in Kenya.

Typical opening pages of a chapter. From "African Dress," 2013.

Typical opening pages of a chapter. From “African Dress,” 2013.

A strength of the book is its Afrocentric approach: fashion is defined in African terms, by Igbo and Ghanaian traditions. Editor Karen Tranberg Hansen, a well-known scholar of African dress, fashion, and domesticity, notes in her introduction:

When it comes to the study of dress practice in Africa, we are confronted by a widespread scholarly tendency that privileges Western exceptionalism and denies any non-Western agency in the development of fashion. (1)

She notes other concerns within the more general study of dress and fashion:

One is the trivialization of consumers’ interests in clothes, an antifashion tendency the devalues the significance of dress as a cultural and economic phenomenon…The second concern is the distinction between fashion in the West and the ‘traditional’ clothing of much of the rest of the world, unchanged for generations, drawn by scholars who attribute fashion’s origins to the development of the capitalist production system in the West. …A third concern arises from the lingering effects of the trickle-down theories that have restrained our understanding of the sources and currents of dress inspirations. (4-5)

Western-African ties, conflicts, and cultural influence rumble right beneath and often break the surface, unavoidable when studying contemporary dress issues in an increasingly global world. Western theorists such as Veblen, Barthes, and Simmel make their obligatory appearances, but the authors also adapt or manipulate these well-worn theories to fit non-western cultures, or reject the Western foundations for a more inclusive, global fashion history, as challenged by Hansen in the introduction. Kelly Kirby drops a range of fashion theory names in the introduction to her essay, “Bazin Riche in Dakar, Senegal: Altered Inception, Use, and Wear,” as she seeks to find a satisfactory definition of “dress” and “fashion”:

Following Hansen, I use the term dress in this chapter to be inclusive of both cloth and clothing. I also build upon Barnes and Eicher’s definition of dress as “an assemblage of body modifications and/or supplements displayed by a person in communicating with other human beings’. … I draw from Georg Simmel’s definition of fashion to make a final distinction between dress and fashion. Simmel suggests fashion is a ‘form of imitation and so of social equalization…The elite initiates a fashion and, when the mass imitates it in an effort to obliterate the external distinctions of class, abandons it for a newer mode’. Thus, according to Simmel, individuals have minimal freedom as adherents to fashion yet are liberated from having to make personal choices about what to wear. (64-65)

She later locates shortcomings in applying Simmel’s rich-first theory to her examination of the use of a cloth imbued with socially-constructed web of class, wealth, and display:

I suggest, however, that intent–intent of the observer, of the wearer, and the creator–must be considered as an important component that contributes to the augmented values related to the use and wear of bazin riche. In this context, then, what Simmel’s perspective on fashion lacks is recognition that no one, not even the elite can ‘pay’ for the gift of creativity. And therefore, rich or poor, ‘intent’ and the ability to execute it is not always contingent upon socioeconomic status. (73)

Are these old-school theorists relevant here? The first essay, “Dressing for Success: The Politically Performative Quality of an Igbo Woman’s Attire,” may be most successful in that endeavor; the rites, rituals, and performance Misty Bastian observed, experienced, and describes for the reader belong singularly to the town of Onitsha, in Nigeria. In this and many other chapters, the experiential real stands for itself and has no use for or intentional basis in Western theory. What is African fashion theory? Should, or could, it be established? Do we need a theoretical framework to understand each fashion system, and does the negation of existing models require the construction of one or many new?

The tone of most of the chapters skews toward the anthropological and academic; that is to say, probably most of interest to those already engaged in advancing their knowledge of the subject. The form of the book itself privileges the written word and includes, at maximum, three black-and-white photos and one color plate.

Color plate featuring commemorative Obama fabric; facing two black and white figures. From "African Dress," 2013.

Color plate featuring commemorative Obama fabric; facing two black and white figures from a different article. From “African Dress,” 2013.

The series to which this book belongs, Dress, Body and Culture (Bloomsbury), features a few titles that encompass African fashion practices, some edited by contributors to African Dress. The format will be familiar to readers of that series, providing great research, ample citations, excellent bibliographies, and highly quotable writing, but is not quite enjoyable to read cover to cover.  There is a lot of information here. Much like collections of short stories, these edited volumes of short, focused research allow the reader to choose which subjects are most applicable to one’s interests, and take the work on in smaller chunks. That said, the flow of the book is pleasantly intentional, as set out by Hansen in the introduction (6-9). It’s nice to read a chapter about the Senegalese notion of sañse (to dress up; a complete outfit (63)) and see the concept referenced in the following chapter on Mauritanian shabiba (85). There are a few gratuitous instances of academic buzzwords like “performative” and “unpack,” but this comes with the territory, and did not ultimately take away from the content.

African dress has lately been highlighted by the Western fashion press, most significantly Lagos and Nigerian Fashion. The Business of Fashion ran an article on November 5 about Morocco outpacing its neighboring countries in the fashion race (or…in attracting fashion chains, at least). Suzy Menkes chaired the “Promise of Africa” conference last year, on Worn Through here. Guaranty Trust Bank Lagos Fashion and Design Week happened last month, and The Financial Times Style section recently called Lagos a “global fashion hotspot.”  While the authors in African Dress define fashion and dress in a unique, Afrocentric way, newspapers and magazines are combing these cities and fashion systems into the stream of catwalks, skinny models, and spiraling Seasons–privileging that Western construction of fashion. Lagos, in its success, is poised to become a metonym for African Fashion–perhaps to its benefit, like New York’s situation in America, although being the fashion capital of an entire continent is quite a different responsibility. While African fashion deserves more than an ethnographic or anthropological review of its fashion systems–it can be fun and frivolous too–the articles in this book successfully value the small details and the distinctions of each place.

As Hansen writes in the introduction, this book is unique and worthwhile because

it not only features scholars who enjoy exceptional access to sources close to public persona like Josephine Baker, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Malick Sidibé but also contributors who have experienced the trials and tribulations as well as the joys of conducting research on clothing in the context of everyday life in some of Africa’s most bustling cities. (6)

A generalist addition to the genre, it is an example to emerging scholars in African studies, anthropology, and dress history that will serve to educate on the “rising star” of Africa from a human perspective or to expand a research paper or inspire fieldwork. Good research practices, interesting subject matter, and logical, easy-to-read presentation are reasons enough to pick up this book. As a title, African Dress aspires to cover an extremely large landmass comprising many distinctive nations, ethnicities, and cultures; the content deftly continues to work toward defining that broad term by offering engaging individual stories, showing the average reader that African dress is more than kente cloth and postcolonial performance.


Lead Photo Credit: Cover of African Dress: Fashion, Agency, Performance edited by Karen Tranberg Hansen and D. Soyini Madison. Bloomsbury, 2013.


Find more book reviews on Worn Through here!

Further Reading

Craik, Jennifer. The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion. London: Routledge, 1993.

Eicher, Joanne B., Sandra Lee Evenson and Hazel A. Lutz. The Visible Self: Global Perspectives on Dress, Culture, and Society [3rd ed.]. New York: Fairchild Books, 2008.

Eicher, Joanne B. Dress and Ethnicity: Change Across Space and Time.

Gott, Suzanne and Kristyne Loughran. Contemporary African Fashion. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2010.

Hansen, Karen Tranberg. Salaula: The World of Secondhand Clothing and Zambia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Hansen, Karen Tranberg, ed. African Encounters with Domesticity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Hendrickson, Hildi. Clothing and Difference: Embodied Identities in Colonial and Post-Colonial Africa. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.

Maynard, Margaret. Dress and Globalisation. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2004.

Perani, Judith and Norma H. Wolff. Cloth, Dress and Art Patronage in Africa. Oxford: Berg, 1999.

And, obviously, dozens more.


Global Mode: Predictable as Candy Corn and Mini Chocolate Bars

Ah, another year, another chance to “discuss” the “problem” of sexyst, racist costumes! The University of Boulder has given bloggers something to write about by encouraging students to make thoughtful, positive choices about their costumes, and to avoid offensive or racist outfits. That which may be deemed offensive is notoriously fluid and the letter written by CU’s Dean of Students Christina Gonzales has, unsurprisingly, attracted accusations of oversensitivity. The letter suggests avoiding the usual suspects, such as: sexualized stereotypes like geishas and squaws, “Mexican” outfits that so often focus on the sombrero/serape combo, and those that play off poverty, such as “ghetto” or “hillbilly.” Its unique suggestion is to avoid the “cowboy” stereotype, which does not reflect the realities of Western life; I can see how some might think this is a step too far, but there are other people who don’t see the harm in their annual pimps and hos couple’s costume.

But this did happen this year:

A highly "topical" costume, 2013.

Topical costumes supposedly depicting George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, 2013.

In an article on the Huffington Post, Leanne Italie discusses the incidence of blackface this year (Halloween, birthdays, etc), including a woman who decided to show her admiration for actress Uzo Aduba by dressing up as her Orange is the New Black character, Crazy Eyes (aka Suzanne). Although this may be temporary, Aduba’s work is currently obscured by this act of admiration; she has become the object, not the subject.

Even among those who may disagree with the costumes above, there are some who complain that everything will be (mis)construed as racist or knee-jerk offensive. This assigns an essential Thingness to the practice of Halloween as it is performed today, a willful misrememberance of p.c.-free days past, and a belief that tradition or inheritance invalidates claims of wrongdoing. As Jenée Desmond Harris wrote for The Root in 2012 about that year’s crop of ill-contrived costumes:

[C]ostumes that play on stereotypes about African-American criminality, Asian sexuality and Mexican illegality are as predictable a part of the holiday as candy corn and miniature chocolate bars.

She interviewed David Leonard of Washington State University (excerpted in the 2013 version), who asked:

“Why are ‘the other’ and ‘the exotic’ such sources of enjoyment and pleasure” that they’ve become Halloween staples?

What is the role of intention (good or bad) in the choices we make on Halloween, and should we consider each possible reception? What is our responsibility toward other people, and how does it weigh against the perceived right to wear whatever one wants on a commercial holiday? Is wearing certain clothing exercising free speech, and should it be protected? Unlike the spoken word, these costumes can never be defended as off-the-cuff or an unplanned mistake: these costumes take time, even just a few minutes, of considered creation. Someone splashed red paint on a hoodie and called it a joke, another heated up mom’s iron and applied almost enough letters for the punch line. One must have spent a more than a little time in front of a mirror, literally confronting his bad decision face to face, and still deemed it a good idea.

While most people avoid wearing offensive statements in their day-to-day lives, explicit or implied, intentional or accidental, why do some use Halloween as an opportunity to exercise unrestraint in dress? This is a holiday centered around clothing. The hoodie that became a metonym for Trayvon Martin has a complicated history, but it (necessarily) takes a backseat here to accompanying depictions of violence and blackface. Watered-down, seemingly randomly-chosen signifiers of various cultures become the full extent of the outfit, like fuzzy ears and a painted-on nose are sartorial shorthand for “cat” on this night. It’s rare that a Halloween celebrant takes on the persona, speech patterns, and mannerisms associated with the culture, so the appearance (or phrase ironed onto a plain t-shirt) must stand for itself.

Why do you celebrate Halloween? Be safe and thoughtful out there!


Parisian Insights: Virgule, etc. Dans les pas de Roger Vivier

After the Chloé. Attitudes  exhibition (which I had the chance to work on), last year, the Palais de Tokyo, a Parisian contemporary art museum, continues its ‘Fashion Program’ with a new display dedicated to the French shoe brand, Roger Vivier.

View of the display. Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013.

View of the display.
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013.

Virgule, etc. Dans les pas de Roger Vivier (Comma, etc. In Roger Vivier’s footsteps) tells the story of the brand and honours its founder, from the 1930s to nowadays, with the help of about 140 objects curated by the Musée Galliera‘s director, Olivier Saillard. Most of the shoes come from the house’s very own patrimonial department enriched since 2002 and, particularly, with a large purchase, in 2011, during an auction sale. Some institutions have also lent artefacts: the Metropolitan Museum, the BATA Shoes Museum, the Galliera museum and the Romans Shoe museum that conserves Roger Vivier’s archives.

The display evokes a 19th century museum, a ‘cabinet de curiosités’,  that presents its ‘exotic’ artefacts within archetypal glass cases, giving the impression of walking down the alleys of the Louvre museum. Rather than being presented following a chronological arrangements, Roger Vivier’s inspirations dictate the themes that organise the display, English painting, African Arts, Egyptian Department, Gallery of Post-impressionism…A nod to traditional museum’s topographies.

View of the display. Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013.

View of the display.
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013.

Each shoe is given an imaginary alternative name, borrowed from veritable art works, erasing boundaries between art and fashion, temporary display and cultural institution. A theme dear to the curator who refuses fashion exhibitions to be seen as something else than art exhibitions. Here, the function of the shoe is removed, remains an art piece with its very own narrative.

Why not treat these shoes as pieces of art when their designer himself would see them as sculptures? He invented new lines, new shapes that changed the face of shoe-making whilst he also gave much importance to adornments, relying on precious feathered décors, stones or embroideries made by the Lesage historical house. An inventor: he created the stiletto in 1954 and the comma-shaped heel (which the exhibition’s title refers to) in 1963. He took part in iconic historical events and cultural moments: drawing Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation shoes or Catherine Deneuve’s famous pumps for Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour film. Roger Vivier also collaborated with major couture houses, from Elsa Schiaparelli to Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior.

View of the display. Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013.

View of the display.
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013.

The scenography is quite simple and austere but I did appreciate this choice that enables the themes and the shoes to speak for themselves: no need to add anything more. Despite from a few collages and drawings by Roger Vivier and Bruno Frisoni, there are no interactive displays, no videos nor installations.

Olivier Saillard made the choice not to write any technical nor date informations on the labels accompanying the shoes in the cases, to prevent the visitor from giving too much importance to this practical data. Instead, he invites us to observe the shoe, to concentrate on its aesthetic and understand the inspiration behind…Difficult to make the difference between Roger Vivier’s designs (who died in 1998) and Bruno Frisoni’s creations who has taken over the house’s creative direction since 2002: it proves the continuity of the house’s history, something permanent in its aesthetic…However, no need to worry: you are given a booklet with all the precise informations you would like to know about the objects!

View of the display. Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013.

View of the display.
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013.

I do wonder, however, whether the hints within the themes and shoes’ titles may not bee a little too intellectual for the non-specialised visitor: would everyone get the fact that the scenography evokes a classical 19th century museological presentation? Are all the masterpieces’ titles acknowledged? Personally, I loved the idea but I’m not quite sure it is broad enough. And saying this, I wonder whether it is finally not a further form of education? Visitors, more than the shoe history, are also told about art movements and given names they may would want to know more about in the future…, no?

This exhibition could be a pure marketing exercise: a show about a particular brand proposed by this particular brand. However, because of Olivier Saillard’s strong and independent curatorial choices, the cultural and didactic feel of the display is, hopefully,what comes out most.

View of the display. Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013.

View of the display.
Photo: Hayley Dujardin-Edwards, 2013.

As a visitor, I always feel I can relate to shoe displays more easily than to clothing, probably because they are more accessible in terms of shapes and ‘wear’. Shoes ignore body shapes and sizes, they are more self-sufficient whilst they strongly tell the story of an era. There is something very personal and very universal at the same time with a shoe. And, that is why I find Olivier Saillard’s display so effective: each shoe communicates its sense of beauty and its technical approach of form while the thematic ensembles relate to universal inspirations, important art movements that place the shoes within a wider aesthetic discourse.

The exhibition runs until the 18th November at the Palais de Tokyo.

Further Resources:

Fontanel, Sophie and Mouzat, Virginie. Roger Vivier. Paris: Rizzoli, 2013.

Melissa’s visit to the Bata Shoe Museum on this blog

Jenna’s interview of Shonagh Marshall for the Shoes for Show exhibition

Heather’s short history of Roger Vivier