When I applied to the University of Edinburgh for post-graduate study, I was truly torn between studying the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and studying the 1920s and 1930s in dress and textiles. Their ‘History, Theory and Display’ taught programme had everything I wanted in a master’s program, except someone to supervise the latter topic, so I looked at the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in my coursework and my subsequent dissertation. I do not regret this.
However, since graduating my own research as progressively moved forward to focus on the late nineteenth century through the second World War. This means that my regret at not being able to see Elegance in an Age of Crisis at the Museum at FIT (closing April 19), is greater than for any other exhibition geographical limitations have prevented me from seeing thus far.
Thankfully, we live in the age of the internet, and the Museum at FIT has done an incredible job with their exhibition website, blog, and in the catalogue for which I am daily checking my mailbox in anticipation of its arrival (what is it Carrie Fisher says, Instant gratification isn’t fast enough?). These are so good that it is some compensation for not being able to see the exhibition myself. Thankfully as well, I am a member of Costume Society of America; at my first ever national symposium I made the acquaintance of Ariele Elia, assistant curator at the Museum at FIT, who assisted with the exhibition and contributed to said-anticipated catalogue. Ariele was kind enough to take the time this week to speak with me over the phone about the exhibition, what it aims to accomplish, how it was conceived, and the amazing things it reveals not just about fashions of the 1930s, but about the innovations in design worldwide that were happening during an age society typically associates with breadlines, stock market crashes, Dorothea Lange photos, dust bowls, and John Steinbeck.
The exhibition is co-curated by Patricia Mears, whose work I have long admired, and G. Bruce Boyer, whose work I am now going to pursue with almost single-minded devotion. Elegance in an Age of Crisis was conceived after Patricia read an article Bruce had written about the changes in men’s tailoring in the 1930s. She found that the deconstruction in these suits mirrored perfectly the sort of deconstruction happening in women’s fashion, and thus the first exhibition to examine both menswear and women’s clothing of the 1930s was born. Patricia and Bruce had worked together on Ivy Style, so working together to demonstrate the elegance and innovation of fashion design in the Great Depression was not as difficult as it might have been.
Featuring pieces from the museum’s permanent collection — such as tailoring patterns for the Prince of Wales, later Duke of Windsor who contributed much to the shift in menswear — MFIT was also loaned suits and jackets from the Ribonacci Museum in Naples (with whom Bruce has long worked), Fred Astaire’s shoes from the FIDM Museum in Los Angeles, and pieces from private collectors including Hamish Bowles and Beverley Birks. The exhibition aims to be truly international showing that while it features clothing from the high end of fashion, the elegance of the era matched a truly global aesthetic. There are suits from department stores in Cuba, an emphasis on Neapolitan tailoring and its contributions to the deconstruction of men’s suiting, and a collection of qipao worn by Mrs Wellington Koo, a socialite — this garment was unique in making use of traditional Chinese lines, fabrics, embroideries, and embellishments while revealing the contours of the body in a way that had never been done before in Chinese dress and which indicates the influence of modernity, the West, and cultural exchange in general.
Left, McGregor man’s beach robe, c. 1935-1940, USA. Museum purchase, P92.11.4.
Man’s swim suit, c. 1929, USA. Gift of Mike Dykeman, 89.143.1.
Right, Munchen swim suit, wool, circa 1930, Germany. Museum purchase, P83.8.9.
In speaking with Ariele, I was struck by the sheer amount of information, and the number of concepts and innovations the exhibition is communicating through 110 objects: 80 garments and 30 accessories. One of these innovations was the emphasis on the human body as it is as opposed to how the fashionable silhouette was recreating it in fashion, for the first time in years, possibly millennia. Having studied the 1920s extensively, I have often seen the silhouette of the 1930s characterized as a “return to Puritanism” or other such biases. What Elegance in an Age of Crisis does so well is to place the 1930s silhouette properly in the context of neoclassicism in the first part of the decade and Victorian revival in the latter half of the decade — celebrating the human body instead of contorting it has had been done in the Edwardian age, or concealing or denying it’s adult state as happened during the youthful, tubular shapes of the 1920s.
This emphasis on the body also led to a more public — if initially scandalous — acknowledgement of sport, leisure, and thus more elegant and visible sportswear and leisurewear as seen in the examples above. As Beverley Birk says in one of the accompanying videos (see below), you can’t wear a corset under a bias-cut gown. The exhibit also revives the work of Augustabernhard, who was equally talented at creating bias-cut gowns as Madame Vionnet, while revealing through the errors of a tweed coat by Charles James how tricky the bias cut was to create in an era when it was not formally taught in apprenticeships or schools — it was an open field of discovery. This deconstruction in garments was, as I’ve already said, echoed or mirrored in the deconstruction of men’s tailoring to create the soft drape of what became known as the ‘London Drape’.
Left, Augustabernard (attributed) gown, ivory tulle. 1934, USA (licensed French copy). Gift of Mrs. Jessie L. Hills, 93.71.4.
Right, London House (founder: Gennaro Rubinacci, tailor: Vincenzo Attolini) classic Neopolitan jacket, silk thussor, 1930s, Italy. Lent by the Rubinnaci Museum.
There is a natural division within the show, which opens with accessories — that wonderful way in which you can make a small budget stretch — and then leads into distinct themes of active and resortwear, women’s day wear, menswear, women’s evening wear, and patterns. This decision on how to layout the pieces was not a challenge for the museum, since the divisions seemed almost pre-made by the very nature of the era and the clothing itself.
By far, for me, the most incredible aspect of the exhibition is all of the original research, and the ways in which that research has enhanced our understanding of the era not only as dress historians, but in the understanding of worldwide design and visual culture. It was truly an era of international design innovation, with an international aesthetic to accompany an international depression. And yet, through film and clothing and design, the people of the 1930s escaped those hardships and almost in defiance of their circumstances created a “golden age of fashion”, as Bruce calls it, to be elegant in a way that still inspires designers today. The detail that Bruce and Patricia put into their analysis of clothing, and their understanding of the construction and the changes that happened in clothing construction at the time is awe-inspiring.
I will not attempt to paraphrase their phenomenal work, since I would by no means do it justice, but I wholly recommend visiting the exhibition if you can. If you, like me, cannot, I recommend the blog, the catalogue, and the videos below. Which I will be watching over, and over, and over again.
Elegance in an Age of Crisis, Part 1: Hers
Elegance in an Age of Crisis, Part 2: His
Gardner and Wooley LTD smoking jacket, green velvet, satin, 1936, London. Collection of Alan Bennett, Davies and Son.
Have any of you been to Elegance in an Age of Crisis? What were your thoughts? Did you like or dislike it? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. And if there are any North American exhibitions or events you would like to announce or see covered, feel free to email me.
Opening image credit: Madeleine Vionnet gown, ivory silk organza with black lace insets, 1937, France. Collection of Beverley Birks.
Paris’ Musée Carnavalet is the city’s historical museum, a museum that tells the story of Paris with the help of various themes such as painting, drawings, interior design…and, with its most recent exhibition, Roman d’une Garde-Robe (The Novel of a Wardrobe), fashion. How natural for a city that has always been and still is entitled the capital of fashion and chic to be the guiding thread of a display illustrating the making and the life of an elegant Parisian wardrobe from the end of the 19th century to the 1930s. Actually, I’d rather say that what is a the centre of the exhibition is not quite Paris (although the city’s activity as a haute couture market is clearly contextualised) but rather La Parisienne. The famed Parisienne, the one foreigners and sartorial authors still much babble about: ‘The Parisian style’, ‘The Parisian diet’, ‘How to..like a Parisian’….Some ‘Parisiennes’ have made a living of their mythologised identity, I’m thinking Ines de la Fressange…However, being a Parisian myself I still have not quite understood what makes a style, Parisian…I actually believe there is no such thing as a Parisian style. Maybe foreigners observe something I don’t quite see myself.
Anyhow, this is not the subject of my post today but what brought me to talking about La Parisienne is that the exhibition proposed by Carnavalet, in association with the Musée Galliera, clearly plays with the concept of La Parisienne but a Parisienne less known by the public, a Parisienne who evolved in the beginning of the 20th century.
Evening Dress – Unknown, 1920-1925.
Photography: Stéphane Piera/Galliera/Roger-Viollet
Let me announce it clearly right now, I loved this exhibition. I truly appreciated the concept, the precise observation of the life and work of Alice Alleaume, the woman around whom the whole display is built. Between 2008 and 2010, indeed, were donated to the Musée Galliera hundred of garments and accessories belonging to the descendants of the Dumas family, pieces that illustrated the lives of Alice, her mother Adèle and her elder sister, Hortense: a veritable and brilliant piece of fashion history, spanning from the 1830s to 1930s. In addition, those historical items were accompanied by precious documents such as photographies, letters and notes that enabled the museum curators to develop a strong insight into the context in which the clothes were made and worn. Such a rare opportunity had to be shared with the public!
The museum therefore decided to focus on Alice Alleaume who not only led a wealthy bourgeois existence and had been brought up in a family firmly anchored in couture, but was herself first vendor at Chéruit, an experience that enables the display to bring the attention on a couture house that is often forgotten although it was, alongside such houses as Lanvin and Poiret, a major witness of 1920s fashion.
Alice Alleaume is our guide throughout the display. We follow her traces through four main sections: the influence of her family and her first steps into the professional environment of fashion – the context of Paris and couture within its key centre, the Place Vendome and the Rue de la Paix – Alice’s career at Chéruit – the 1930s and how Alice embodied Parisian chic.
Evening Dress – Unknown, Beginning 20th century.
Photography: Stéphane Piera/Galliera/Roger-Viollet
We thus enter a first clear room in which are displayed pre-war garments: children pieces and the crinolines of Adèle, her mother, that lead us within the context in which she was brought up. We discover the great taste of her parent who was herself a renown seamstress alongside the dresses of her sister, Hortense, who worked at Worth. We also observe the clothing of Alice’s young years who despite her youth is already very elegant and possesses numerous hats. All these items come along various photographies and paintings that illustrate the family’s environment, the stylistic context of the time and most of all put a face on the protagonists.
The second section interestingly tells us more about Paris’ fashion scene and how it concentrated between the Place Vendome and Rue de la Paix. Various articles and illustrations from the 1910s and 1920s evoke the atmosphere of this area while certain drawings by Sem mock the fashion ‘wannabes’ (fashion evolves not attitudes!). A slideshow presents a very entertaining photographic reportage published by Le Figaro in 1910 and that invites us behind the scenes of the main couture houses.
G.Agié – Les Mannequins, 1910.
Photographie: Les Editions du Figaro/Droits Reservés
Prise de Vue
The third and most important section is dedicated to Alice’s work at Chéruit from 1912 to 1923. To enhance the contextual feel, large blow-up photographies of the Chéruit salons serve as a mural background. A couture house, Chéruit’s designs were tailor-made and Alice Alleaume encountered with many wealthy clients to whom she gave her best advices and she consciously took notes of all the alterations that were to be made on her clients’ garments. Alice indeed kept a notebook she updated daily: an extraordinary document that tells us all about the technical work that had to be done but that also shares her remarks about a client’s physical characteristics and humours. She thus, for example, signifies that this lady being ‘large, the waist should be loose-fitting’
The scenography also evokes the rich productivity of the house with the images of the 200 hundred models of the summer 1920 collection used as a wallpaper as well as the airing of vendors’ voices that give the impression of taking part to their bursting activity.
Most of the Chéruit garments on display come from Alice’s personal wardrobe and reflect the versatile and elegant style of the vendor who follows the evolution of fashion and adopts jersey swimsuits, beach pyjamas and Art Deco prints.
Evenning Dress – Jeanne Lanvin, 1935.
Photography: Stéphane Piera/Galliera/Roger-Viollet
Finally, we enter the 1930s section, a decade during which Alice is no longer a vendor but nevertheless continues to demonstrate her taste for refined garments. She adopts the 1930s style with bias cut dresses, plastic Art Deco jewellery and inventive dressing-up costumes. Many Jeanne Lanvin pieces are displayed and we are told that Alice led the existence of a socialite: going to premières and to the theatre.
The Roman D’une Garde-Robe is not only the tale of a woman and her wardrobe, it greatly illustrates the evolution of high fashion and its professional working. Alice is the embodiment of a wealthy bourgeoisie that, to keep up with its social obligations, possessed a rich and elegant wardrobe and followed trends without being an avant-garde. What is added with this precise figure is her role as a vendor in a major couture house who brings an exclusive and rare insight into the everyday activity of a fashion house in the beginning of the 20th century.
By choosing to tell the story of a real life person, the museum added an emotional feel to its display. We can more easily relate to the garments as they were ‘explicitly worn’. And we finally come to envy Alice who got the chance to wear such exquisite dresses that, with the help of great work of contextualisation, are not fantasy-like garments but become true wardrobe items.
Goissiord, Sophie. Roman D’une Garde-Robe: le Chic d’une Parisienne de la Belle Epoque aux Années 30. Paris Musées, Paris: 2013.
In February, Robin Givhan wrote a very interesting piece for The Cut about so-called “ethical fashion,” with Maiyet as a case study. The twist in that company’s luxury womenswear offerings is that they are produced not only by real, life artisans, but that said artisans hail from struggling countries or live in areas with few economic opportunities. Part of the profits support the establishment of the metalsmiths, the embroiderers, and the seamstresses as independent, profitable artisans in India, Kenya, Peru, and other places where hand craft skills are still practiced.
In her piece, Givhan dives into the qualifications of the founding partners, lists the big-name backers (Disney, Branson, etc), and has written a meaningful, timely piece on the effectiveness of the “ethical” brands we all love to support.
She outlines my pet protest:
The world of philanthropy has long known how to use Seventh Avenue to spur donations and raise our collective consciousness. Charities have inspired what might be called “pity purchases,” a transaction driven by liberal guilt, lefty do-goodism, or a host of other politically correct motivations rather than that most potent and enduring driver of obscenely priced fashion: pure, unadulterated desire. But ethical fashion still carries the stigma of being inelegant, precious, and a bit twee—unlike in the food industry, say, where customers eagerly pay a premium for farm-to-table bragging rights.
Examines the wonderfully real difficulties of working with craftspeople in global environments:
And then, says [Paul] Van Zyl, there are the silk weavers in India who work out of their homes and can’t work when the temperature soars because, without air conditioning, it’s too hot, and if the doors are left open, the goats come inside and get themselves tangled in the looms, and, well, it’s the kind of mess that the folks over at Hermès don’t have to worry about.
Not everyone can shop at luxury price points, but it’s there that mythology is born and reputations are built. If the luxury market can fetishize Lesage embroidery, can it not come to do the same with Varanasi silk?
“David Mulinga, Richard Ochieng, and the second Richard Ochieng.” Photographs copyright Guillaume Bonn/Global Assignments at Getty Images, 2014.
What I rather liked about this article was that the photographs accompanying the piece were of Kenyan craftspeople and the pieces they made for Maiyet. No CEO business headshot or “site visit” with a gaggle of smiling children. Givhan’s words were strengthened by portraits of Kenyan “partners” of the label, including the couple Maiyet first invested in through the Nest nonprofit. Givhan’s piece was about the business and product sides of Maiyet, but considering their apparently genuine interest in making small businesspeople visible and viable, it was nice to see the artisans lead the visual aspect of the article (accompanied by the obligatory magazine product-layout).
Watch videos about Maiyet artisans on their website here; how do beautifully-made media enhance the customer experience?
The portraits by Guillaume Bonn reminded me immediately of the work of Jim Naughten, known across the internet for his portraits of Hereros in their unique dress, featured on Worn Through in 2012.
From the “Herero” series by Jim Naughten, 2012. Photo copyright Jim Naughten, 2012.
Although I admire the Hereros series, and it may be unfair to compare the two photographic intentions, it is heartening to see people photographed for what they do, not what they wear. In their everyday dress (or work clothes?), accompanied by their tools and materials, these are just people! Very talented people, of course. I wonder if the photographs were taken outside of the Maiyet studio, or if the background was intentionally “neutral”?
How do you see “ethical fashion” companies portraying and representing their artisans and producers? Is it important that they are photographed, named, interviewed? Or is that another form of fetishization? Do you ask the same of your favorite small European brands or American producers (or would you have seven years ago)?
Leave your comments below!
Lead Photograph: Anton Onyango Otiende and Benta Otiende, metalsmiths from Kenya. Photograph copyright Guillaume Bonn/Global Assignments at Getty Images, 2014.
The thrust of the collection is decidedly local. While some international designers are represented … they are dwarfed by items associated with notable Viennese personalities, such as one of Maria Theresia’s cashmere shawls, a pair of ballerina Fanny Elssler’s shoes, one of playwright Johann Nestroy’s dressing gowns, a parasol from the opening of the Suez Canal, boots belonging to Helene Vetsera… (117)
And on and on goes an impressive paragraph on the Wien Museum’s collection, ripe with meaning, personalities, and object lessons. But this excerpt also indicates Vienna’s bigger fashion issue that forms the premise of Wien Chic: it is bogged down in the city’s indefatigable history; the international items are true objects of fashion, while the local is represented best by historic dress. Susan Ingram and Markus Reisenleitner seek to identify “a locational history of Vienna fashion” that re-places Vienna into a global sphere, this time not the stylistic or the musical, but the fashionable.
Here, “fashion” becomes a byway through which the authors explore the aesthetics of the city, the multiplicity of Viennese self-identification and the spaces that at least some of those identified bodies interact with, create, enjoy. This is, after all, a locational history, and the locations are not only geographic (Vienna) but architectural or found in anecdotes on city planning. I was instead expecting a sort of glorified, academized street style book (possibly “misled” by the cover image), an understanding of how “Viennese” or “Vienna” can be expressed through clothing, fashion, and style.
In this volume, clothing/dress/style are not given primacy in the authors’ understanding of “fashion.” There was a fashion for all things Baroque (albeit by a different name), and its lasting influence on Vienna is underscored. But in the whole chapter on “Baroque Chic,” fashion/dress are never discussed, only architecture and ethos. Neither is it in the subsequent chapter on “Ringstrasse Chic,” but the leather jacket is mentioned as a visual indicator of “Prolo Chic” in the next. The section on “Ausländer (foreigner) Chic” speaks more to the role of the foreigner as portrayed in films and the changes in vocabulary that accompanied their changing ethnicities and status over the past two hundred years. As they summarize:
Baroque chic paved the way for the expression and understanding of passion and of suffering. Ringstrasse Chic put capital in charge, which restructured the city and expedited the pace of change. Prolo Chic and Ausländer Chic both participated in and responded to this change, mitigating its tendency to mythologize elites. Taken together, they provide a unique composite that fashion has had to grapple with in trying to make inroads into the Viennese urban imagery. (96)
This is all very important backstory and separate fashions, and the real strength of the book: books about fashion don’t have to be about clothes, just as in English the word “fashion” does not always mean dress or clothing. It seems here that the authors use fashion as a metonym for modernity. They note that “what is at stake in fashion is the pleasure derived from change, an all-encompassing cultural phenomenon that applies to more than dress or ornamentation.” (10) The authors’ struggle to bring the thesis back around to fashion/dress is mirrored in the struggles to achieve a balance in creating modern, forward-moving architecture while maintaining the baroque aesthetic that many in Vienna still cherish, described at length in the book: the story gets caught in a historical-interest loop. Vienna can’t commit to fashion/dress, and the authors can’t commit to it either.
Modernity means something quite different, something much more inflected and influenced by the weight of the historical, especially the baroque, in the Viennese context than it does in other modern Euro-American cities, such as London, Paris, Berlin, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. (9)
But although they “find fashion a useful heuristic wedge to open up the spatial specificity of the cultural-historical struggle inherent in the modernity of Vienna’s urban context,” [ed. note: Phew!] the wedge doesn’t seem a purposeful tool until more than 100 pages into the text (of 170). When we finally get to the applied fashion/dress section, it is split into Museum Chic and Designer Chic, reflecting the authors’ interest in the two as separate but occasionally overlapping spheres.
The introductory note to this section is quite good, using “the chics” to look very briefly at fashion (although not the other way around, as suggested above): “in the first instance, fashion is primarily staged in the city’s baroque tradition of conspicuous display.” In the Museum Chic section we are rarely treated with descriptions of the museums’ holdings, strengths, intriguing or important past fashion exhibitions (except for the passage above and a list is hidden in the notes), but most often the text jumps back into the loop for a comparison of the museums’ roles, historically and contemporarily, in Vienna’s cultural capital and landscape. However, the Wien Museum is credited with “mov[ing] the role of fashion … to the centre and giv[ing] it visibility.” Its inclusive intentions best fit with the Prolo and Ausländer chics, as a public offering with a focused mission. The MAK (Austrian Museum of Applied Arts Vienna) is most significant here for its leadership issues, Wiener Werkstätte collection, various fashion schools, and complex relationship with the category of “applied and decorative arts.”
The renowned museum cluster called the Museumsquartier (MQ) has worked with or offered spaces for fashion exploration and support, and also creates “inclusive” space for a wider public than private fashion shows (which are never truly addressed, other than to dismiss them as elitist), fulfilling an important anti-Baroque quality that the authors admire. (1).
The final chapter, Designer Chic, begins with designer Helmut Lang, offering a background on his unhappy teenage years that may have inspired him to become a designer, the schools he attended, Anna Wintour’s admiration…but not a lot about his collections, hardly an adjective or descriptor to explain his work–even from others. Is this less important than his childhood in the Styrian Alps? Is it left up to the reader to explore Lang’s work further, or does it assume a common foreknowledge of his aesthetic? The art Lang has made and shown is given more thought; it does, of course, use clothing, textiles, and garments from his label, but it is only in the guise of Artworks that these objects receive recognition and academic handling. The authors use the art to speculate about Lang’s attitude toward his clothing design, which is described as “champion[ing] the independent, proletarian heritage of jeans.” (Prolo chic!)
In their conclusion, the authors remark that:
What became apparent in our investigations is that Vienna’s urban imaginary is so intimately linked to its historical legacy that its fashion system’s inherently modern, change-oriented dynamic is constantly forced to define itself in relation to its past. (175)
And this book certainly proves that, in part due to the lack of observation of fashion; the structures, both physical and social, surrounding them were examined at length here, and occasionally applied to fashion/dress. As an explanation of why fashion has such a difficult time taking in root in Vienna, this work is excellent. Maybe it’s unfair of me to expect or desire an account of buying and wearing clothing in Vienna as opposed to Paris or Seoul, or what it is like to design in Vienna instead of New York or London (or Denver?). But instead of adding to the body of work that describes fashion/dress outside of Major Fashion Cities, this book confirms that those are the places whose fashion systems actually deserve direct examination. An insightful, apropos remark is hidden in a note:
We would not want to be misunderstood as suggesting that it is due to Helmut Lang’s influence that these [younger designers'] collections contain echoes of his; rather, we would want to see them all as part of the larger system, one, moreover, that tends to produce a quite unique, more understated look than one tends to find in the fashion capitals. (172)
While the authors stated plainly that they did not want to create simply a comparison study, that “unique look” is never discussed explicitly. By offering each of the young designers and the entire concept of “sustainability” little more than a page or a paragraph and one small photograph each at the end of the book, contemporary fashion design that is unique to Vienna is effectively an afterthought, literally an endnote.
This book can perhaps be compared to the Fashion Scandinavia book I reviewed a few months ago; while an interesting read, it offered somewhat shallow, short interviews with fashion designs from all over Scandinavia, along with photographs chosen and submitted by the designer(s). Also locational, that book intended to help spread the word about new talent as well as collecting images and words that might begin to define “Scandinavian fashion” (despite the surprisingly different cultures within that loose geographical area). Wiener Chic does not attempt this definition, but rather seems to define everything but, the physical surroundings, the people, the art, the history. Somewhere in between these two is a truly useful and dynamic resource for the fashion historian; this book’s sister publication, Berliner Chic, accomplishes its goal much more effectively.
However, I really did enjoy this book! It was a truly engaging and well-written look at various aesthetic aspects of Viennese life, and laid a foundation for a very interesting future discussion on fashion and the spaces it inhabits, fills, or is lacking. I especially like the story-telling language that gives the often heavy academic historical prose a little lift:
[The Wien Museum] included, and put on display, the holdings of the city’s armoury (the Zeughaus), where not only the weapons that armed the citizens of Vienna were store but also the spoils of the two failed Ottoman sieges of 1529 and 1683. Displays emphasized the city’s historical role as a bulwark against the threats thought to be emanating from the East and characterized Vienna as a feisty place whose spirit of independence was temporarily subdued during the early modern absolutist period of the Habsburg’s reign, only to be resurrected by the Liberals wresting away the Ringstrasse urban modernization project from the imperial rulers. (112)
I can’t decide if it honors fashion/dress to go beyond the obvious descriptions and overwrought “examinations” of designers’ collections and museum exhibitions to find a more dynamic understanding of “Urban Chic,” or if the authors’ treatment of the subject (largely ignoring the material realities and even its easily accessible aesthetics) reduces it to a lesser-than-Art byproduct of life in Vienna. It’s obvious that the authors are more interested in film, architecture, and social structures than the fashion system per se, but by playing on that word in English, it does bring the fashion/dress into those “higher” scholarly realms. It may be interesting to more closely compare this 2014 look at fashion/modernity with Adolf Loo’s turn-of-the-twentieth-century commentary on modernity and Vienna (see Stewart). Although Vienna is not included in Breward and Gilbert or in Potvin, those books are more directly relevant to “locating” fashion in specific cities, albeit mostly the more obvious ones.
There are very few books like this out there, and I want to encourage these non-predictable approaches to the subject of fashion/dress. I look forward to the continuation of the Urban Chic Series (edited by Susan Ingram), and I especially hope it continues to avoid the traditional “Fashion Cities” and will look for the more interesting stories; this seems to be the intention. I wonder which city will be next?
Have you read this book, or Berliner Chic? Which cities do you think merit or require a locational history of fashion?
(1) Speaking of which, this book is relatively academic-jargon-free, the one exception being “baroque,” despite their warning of general overuse of the word when describing Viennese culture.
Lead Image: Cover of Wiener Chic by Susan Ingram & Markus Reisenleitner. Intellect & University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Find more Book Reviews on Worn Through here!
Brandstätter, Christian et al. Vienna 1900: art, life, and culture. New York: Vendome Press, 2006.
Breward, Christopher and David Gilbert. Fashion’s World Cities. Oxford: Berg, 2006.
Gilbert, David. “World Cities of Fashion” in The Fashion Reader, Linda Welters and Abby Lillethun, eds. Oxford: Berg, 2011. [More here about space/place in Part V, "Fashion: space and place].
Ingram, Susan and Katrina Sark. Berliner Chic: A Locational History of Berlin Fashion. Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2011.
Kremer, Roberta S. Broken Threads: the destruction of the Jewish Fashion Industry in Germany and Austria. Oxford: Berg, 2007.
Kwon, Miwon. One Place After Another: Site-specific art and locational identity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.
Levine, Lawrence. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.
Potvin, John. The places and spaces of fashion, 1800-2007. New York: Routledge, 2009.
Quinn, Bradley. The Fashion of Architecture. Oxford: Berg, 2003.
Stewart, Janet. Fashioning Vienna: Adolf Loos’ cultural criticism. London: Routledge, 2002.
Thun-Hohenstein, Christoph. Contemporary Vienna: architecture, art, design, film, literature, music. Wien: Schlebrügge, 2010.
Walkner, Martin et al. No fashion, please!: Photography between gender and lifestyle. Wien: Kunsthalle Vien, 2011.
The Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris, reopened its doors after a four-year renovation, in the end of September 2013 with a grand exhibition dedicated to the Tunis-born fashion couturier.
If you pronounce the name ‘Azzedine Alaia’ to me, you may hear in return a series of onomatopoeia such as ‘oh’ and ‘ah’: I’m quite a devotee of the man and to me, visiting an exhibition dedicated to his work was just the cherry on the cake of my admiration.
Azzedine Alaia – Palais Galliera
Olivier Saillard, the museum’s director and the exhibition’s curator, chose about seventy garments to illustrate the couturier’s career that began in 1979, when pushed by his friend Thierry Mugler, Azzedine Alaia presented his first collection.
The designer’s work is often described as being timeless, he who also plays his own rules, refusing to respect fashion calendars and shows his collections at his own pace. To highlight the permanency of his creations, Olivier Saillard therefore decided to display the garments by types, refusing any idea of chronology: bandage dresses, African influences, zips, black tailored outfits…And as though to emphasize this idea of continuity, the garments were all placed on a lengthy line: a sort of endless procession of dresses standing tall at the visitor’s level. No glass cases surrounded the dresses which was such a refreshing display solution that bore a double significance: it evoked the initial objective of the Palais Galliera, destined to present the Duchesse Galliera’s collection of sculptures – echoing the palace’s 19th century aesthetic brought back to life with its Pompeiian red walls and dark wood carvings. The display also obviously recalled Azzedine Alaia’s creation that resembles sculpture – the designer had initially studied sculpture in Tunis and has since applied this art to his craft, renown for his garments that mould the body.
Azzedine Alaia – Palais Galliera
Thus, thanks to this display, you could read the story of Alaia’s exploration of the female form and his definition of beauty and sensuality while you could also observe a personal take on fashion’s history – Azzedine Alaia is a costume collector and has taken inspiration from such designers as Madeleine Vionnet, Alix Grès and Cristobal Balenciaga with whom he shares technical skills: influences visible in his mastering of drapes and tailoring.
Almost like an evidence, the garments were all presented on ‘invisible’ hollow mannequins that emphasized on the clothing and nothing else as well as they assisted on showing how Azzedine Alaia’s garments shape the body and its forms – although we are placed in front of unreal headless silhouettes.
Azzedine Alaia, 2013.
Alaia is the master of the clear-cut and simplicity was therefore the connecting thread of the whole display: simple mannequins, a simple scenography mounted by the furniture designer Martin Szekely and simple documentary aids ( only discreet labels under the clothing).
I yet agree that the work of a designer such as Azzedine Alaia aims to purity and needs to be presented with a certain modesty but how can the woman’s body be absent from a tribute to a man who has worked his whole life through in celebrating it? Azzedine Alaia declared himself ‘I’d rather people remark the woman than her clothes’. Well, the woman was nowhere to be seen within the display. Or only through its forms…Although it may have polluted the very plain scenography desired by the curator, videos and photographies of women and models wearing the couturier’s creations would have at least brought a little more flesh…And speaking about models, if there is one designer I closely link to supermodels, it is Alaia: I wanted a Naomi or a Stephanie! The sexiness of the creations was still highly visible but it looked like a robotic sex-appeal. Here the discourse had been reversed: visitors were invited to focus on the clothes only not all the tricks behind, including the – fake – body wearing them.
Azzedine Alaia – Palais Galliera
The exhibition was pursued at the Musée d’Art Moderne, just opposite the Palais Galliera, where were displayed in the Henri Matisse room, eight exclusive garments commissioned for the display. This incursion into the world of art, was justified as Azzedine Alaia is a renowned art collector (he even owns a gallery), is a former sculptor and has often proposed cross-discourses with contemporary artists such as Dan Flavin or Julian Schnabel. And we’ve come full circle! Azzedine Alaia’s whose garments are displayed like art objects, like sculptures…was placed on the same level as artists, the fashion designer therefore disappeared behind the artist.
Azzedine Alaia – Henri Matisse Room, Musée d’Art Moderne
And, as Emma in her post about the Henrik Vibskov exhibition wrote, I regret not seeing more of the fashion designer, especially in a fashion museum. We celebrate Azzedine Alaia as such a fine craftsman, I wish I could have seen more of his creative process, a pedagogic ‘behind-the-scenes’…All the elements that make the richness of fashion and its procedure, were hidden here behind an aesthetic and artistic concept.
Although I was thrilled being able of observing such beautiful and fine pieces, I was disappointed to be confronted to an almost stereotyped ‘fashion as art’ concept placing aesthetic above education and most of all, I highly deplored that the ‘absent body’ debate took place here: Azzedine Alaia’s work is on the contrary about the present body.
I wish we could have seen more of his parallels with other designers and artists by proposing analogies: his designs compared to those of his 80s power dressing contemporaries, the influence he has on a younger generation, art works that infused his creations and most of all his inspirations – he who was the first to discover Madeleine Vionnet’s cutting techniques….How wonderful it would have been to confront their designs!
Do read Emma’s post I refer to as she raises an interesting debate I thought it would have been redundant doing so here.
Saillard, Olivier. Alaia. Paris: Paris Musées, 2013.
Wilson, Mark. Azzedine Alaia in the 21st century. Thorn: BAI, 2012.
Gaines, J. and Herzog, C. Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body. London: Routledge, 1990.
Robinson, J. Body Packaging: a guide to human sexual display. Los Angeles: Elysium
Growth Press, 1990.
Harvey, J. (2007) ‘ Showing and hiding: Equivocation in the relations of body and dress.’ Fashion
Theory, Vol.11 (1) : 65-94.
Ok so this is a bit of a frivolous post, but I have a nagging question for readers that I don’t think I’ve asked before (If I have my apologies):
I have a handful of Disney “It’s a Small World” items that I adore, and recently put in my daughter’s bedroom as part of an international theme. However, there is one boy magnet I purchased in 2002 and in all that time I’ve never been able settle on where he is supposed to be representing. I’ve got my guesses, but I’m curious of your thoughts.
Certainly some global fashion expert can identify the details?
I know they recently came out with a TV show and are updating the ride, however I cannot seem to get the info from those websites either.
Yes…I’ve spent too much time on this! I guess that’s a born fashion researcher right?!
This week, I am taking a break from the UK, having just returned from Finland, where I had the pleasure of staying in Fiskars, a small village whose claim to fame is being the original location for the country’s largest metalware brand. Fiskars is internationally known for their ergonomic orange scissors, which anyone who has ever dabbled in dressmaking or taken up fashion design as a more serious pursuit will be familiar with as an iconic tool of the trade.
With cloth and pattern in mind, I made the journey into Helsinki to the national Design Museum to see an exhibition about the menswear designer Henrik Vibskov. I went with an Icelandic product designer who was very enthusiastic about Vibskov, and to whom I had to admit I had never heard of him before. I became vividly aware of how little I knew about Danish contemporary dress, let alone Scandinavian fashion.
On my return home, I skimmed Berg’s Companion to Fashion for some kind of further reference but found nothing. Yet, perhaps that was part of the problem. What was I looking for? A nice summarized discussion on the identity of Scandinavian fashion that would explain the cultural identities of several quite distinct geographical locations? Well, yes, sort of. Searching on this site, I was pleased to find Arianna’s review of Fashion Scandinavia and to discover Vibskov is one of several Scandinavian fashion designers recognized within a wider international discourse on the subject. This was certainly reiterated within the exhibition by a huge graphic timeline of his career in the main room. It was also a canny opportunity to showcase the museum’s new visual identity including font and logo designed by the Finnish branding agency Bond. However, the question of fashion design as an aspect of a national identify played only a small part in the overall exhibition as it was dedicated more to an exposition of the range of outputs produced by Vibskov since he graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2001.
Vibskov is presented in this exhibition as a designer and an artist, a creative individual, credible in both worlds. In some ways, he is perfect for a museum to exhibit because his work crosses such diverse mediums from sound and film to clothes and sculptures. His ability to cross disciplines is recognized in a list of accolades that include both distinguished art and design prizes.
A small exhibition, it is loosely arranged chronologically, although the fit between sculpture and space seems to take precedent over the organisation of the artifacts. However, as the exhibition is accessed from two sides, it is possible to start with the now and work your way back or start with the past and work your way here. Therefore, each room appears to stand alone as well as playing a role in an overarching biographical narrative.
There is a strong tactile quality to Vibskov’s work, whether it be in his use of inflatable shapes, foam props or textile creations, and I was especially drawn to his graphic knitwear, frenetic prints and the Fringe project from 2000/2001. There is no doubt that his sartorial designs are beautiful and humorous, also wearable, which I thought was well reflected in the decision to display them on coathangers and not mannequins. However, having watched some of his shows, which often involve lots of motion and theatrical techniques, the absence of a kinesthetic connection with the clothing was noticeable throughout the exhibition.
Nonetheless, in one room, I was drawn to a men’s jacket from his The Stiff Neck Chamber Autumn/Winter 2013 collection that featured a retro flamingo print. Hung up next to the other garments, it could have been mistaken for a pair of kitsch pyjamas. Overlaying the fabric were black strips that externalized interior seams.
A striking piece, I was then quite excited to discover another room dedicated to the display of an installation for the same collection. Featuring black birds that were similar in form to flamingoes, they were hung from the ceiling to create a forest of birds. Vibskov explained that for the show, the birds were laid on the floor appearing as upside down kites, before being hoisted up where their very long necks created material lines through which one could walk in and out. It was lovely to find myself seeing the installation within which the garments had been shown originally. So then imagine my joy when, in the final room, I noticed a photograph from the show placing all three aspects together!
However, this interest in conjoining garments with show sets, immersing the visitor into a more embodied experience of Vibskov’s world was not often reflected in the curation of the exhibition, with emphasis placed on displaying his outputs in isolation so it felt more like an art exhibition than one focused on exploring the design process. I often think this is a missed opportunity whereby the different aspects of how clothing is made, worn and represented can come together for the viewer to better understand what is arguably a intricate design process.
The curator suggests that it is a celebration of creativity yet I think the exhibition is more a celebration of a recognised creative as there is little said about the process of creativity or the business of fashion. This exhibition seems to be a logical step after Vibskov’s art exhibition in Paris last year and a monograph published by Gestalten in 2012 in establishing the designer as a key signifier of Scandinavian fashion design. There is just one glimpse of the design process, where the visitor is invited to gaze upon Vibskov’s sketchbooks, samples of printed textile designs and collected ephemera that demonstrate his work in process. This is perhaps only matched by a film in another room that documents the setting up of a show in Copenhagen, where Vibskov makes explicit his intentions for his visual style.
I find exhibitions about fashion designers slightly problematic, particularly when they are located in design museums. I noticed this when visiting the Hussein Chalayan exhibition at the Design Museum in London in 2009. Although it was a fantastic opportunity to see contemporary fashion on display, the decision to present his work as art rather than design meant there was no discussion of Chalayan’s collaboration with Puma nor Marks & Spencer’s Autograph range. This surely limits how much we can understand the world of fashion as a complex place where design and art are arguably blurred activities, influenced by social, cultural and economic factors. These exhibitions would benefit from reflecting upon the way in which particular designers understand fashion as art, design and/or craft in an effort to engage the visitor in these same debates.
To conclude, I think I agree with Valerie Cumming, who in her book Understanding Fashion History (2004) argues that exhibitions which emphasise one designer are challenging for anyone who is interested in the role of fashion in the 21st century because they provide little opportunity to compare or contrast their designer contemporaries. This is often a frustration I have with these exhibitions because they choose to celebrate the work through the lens of designer as original artist. There is rarely a critical perspective by which to assess the work and its impact beyond the assumed status of creative celebrity. Cumming also makes the point that when considering whether fashion is art, it is difficult to assess when academic scholarship of male dress is generally absent from the debate. The exhibition of Vibskov’s work certainly attempted to address that imbalance yet, overall, I felt disappointed with a curatorial decision to approach the subject in such a singular fashion.
A few weeks ago, I happened upon a “fashion story” that coupled high fashion with folk dress to examine the future of Ukraine and its cultural heritage. In an article called “Fashion Dissidence,” 032c Magazine published fashion designer Anton Belinskiy’s inspiration from the country’s anti-Yanukovych protests in November 2013. Seeing a prime opportunity to use his creative powers to make a statement, Belinskiy connected with a photographer and a model on Facebook–aged 16 and 15, respectively–and they created a “fashion story.” Using traditional clothing interspersed with the collection he had shown days before at Mercedes Benz Kiev Fashion Days, Belinskiy and his photographer Alexandra Trishina and model Nastya Petryshina showed their allegiance to their Ukrainian heritage while expressing dissent and dissatisfaction.
But you may have been following the protests in Kiev since November, and may know that the violence and discord in Maidan (Independence Square) have escalated significantly in the last week, with huge fires and close to thirty people killed. The many paragraphs I wrote may find their space in a later post, but for the time being don’t feel appropriate. That is a discussion in itself, that I am reticent to bring fashion and dress into the conversation about civil rights, governance, and the right to free speech: am I codifying the idea of clothing and fashion as superficial?
I do want to share the photographs that caught my eye and inspired me weeks ago to write about the different interactions fashion has with protest and civil unrest:
Protest fashion, Kiev, 2013. Photograph copyright Alexandra Trishina.
As Belinskiy noted to 032c Magazine,
“Around us there were students covered in blood, protesters, journalists. At first they could not understand what we were doing, and some were even a bit aggressive, but then after understanding what it was they strongly supported us.”
Protest fashion in Kiev, 2013. Photograph copyright Alexandra Trishina.
Find more of Trishina’s photographs here. Are they moving? predictable? provoking?
If you’d like to read more about dress and protest today, here on Worn Through we have generally covered “protest fashion” by looking at how protestors present themselves while participating in social uprisings, statements, and sit-ins. Our contributors have written thoughtful and insightful posts, such as Tove Hermansson’s work on secondhand clothing as protest, subversive knitting,Yippies and political fashions, and more. Brenna’s Bits and Bytes column touched on the use of hoodies after Trayvon Martin’s death and Lisa and Monica collaborated on a field report for Anarchists of Style: Occupy Wall Street.
Can fashion or the use of clothing as art be considered a constructive, meaningful reaction to political upheaval? Leave your respectful comments below.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 Fanø. In 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 Aldus.dk.
Girls in traditional dress, Fanø, c. 1911. From mitfanoe.dk.
A 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.
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.
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 , 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.
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.
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.
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 :
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.