Parisian Insights: Papier Glacé

I’m always a little suspicious when it comes to exhibition’s highlighting contemporary companies, not that I neglect the idea that a current brand has its place within a cultural institution but I always found it hard to make the difference between marketing operation and artistic project. I’ve already explored such displays here: rememberer? Dior, Alaia, Roger Vivier

Poster

Poster

When I first discovered the posters for Papier Glacé: Un Siècle de Photographie de Mode chez Condé Nast, I was truly sceptical and promised myself I wouldn’t visit an exhibition praising the glories of a publishing group: I know I can sometimes be a little narrow-minded! My professional conscience and my personal curiosity finally won and I therefore pushed the doors of the Palais Galliera staging this fashion photography display.

I think I may have said it before, I strongly appreciate this Parisian fashion museum, directed by Olivia Saillard, whom I consider to be one of the most talented fashion curators in Europe. I was thus very interested in discovering how they chose to deal with such a theme: an insight of Condé Nast fashion photography archives with 150 objects by 80 different artists.

Peter Lindbergh - Vogue Italia, 1989.

Peter Lindbergh – Vogue Italia, 1989.

First, I was really impressed by the scenography with walls painted in black and white evoking standing magazines, on which were placed the photographies: luminous and airy – great conditions to admire the photographies. The (small!) exhibition is organised following seven themes that are reminiscent of the different styles used by fashion photographers in the pages of the Condé Nast publications such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, W and Love: Décor, Fiction, Exterior – Street, The Figure, Still Life, In Praise of the Body and Portraits.

Within the ‘Décor’ display, we travel into early Vogue photographies that emphasize elegant and luxurious backgrounds that clearly echo the wealthy readers who could afford to lounge about reading a fashion magazine. Such photographers as Cecil Beaton, Baron de Meyer or Edward Steichen proposed glamorous ‘mise-en-scène’ within which high society figures and models mingled into a stylish atmosphere where chic made one between photography, fashion and design. With ‘Fiction’, the display highlights how photographers create narratives, dreamlike sceneries that feature groups of models who play theatrical roles. We clearly observe how simple a story can come to life with little tricks: showers, a wet floor and several women in bathing suits and light robes and Deborah Turbeville gives birth to an erotic atmosphere that evokes a harem where others would simply recognize a post-sports cleaning. Soon, photography went outside! At the end of the 1930s, with World War II, women engaged into more active existences and photographers installed their models in lively streets, often along cars to highlight movement…The ‘Exterior’ display identifies this aesthetic that tended to more naturalness.

Erwin Blumenfeld - American Vogue, 1945

Erwin Blumenfeld – American Vogue, 1945

Some photographers dare to erase ‘The Figure’, blurred by graphic and light effects. There is something quite ironic in shading the model and her garments for a fashion magazine whose goal is to sell clothes. In this case, fashion photography resembles art and the clothing disappear behind the concept. The exhibition also interestingly brings into light the problem of ‘Still Life’ that is so closely linked to the commercial aspect of a publication: that’s when you sell the handbags, the shoes, the cosmetics…However Papier Glacé reminds us that these still lives are also veritable artistic photographies where the object dominates the body: comes to mind and before our eyes, the image of Guy Bourdin and his sexy high heels and legs.

John Rawlings - American Vogue, 1943

John Rawlings – American Vogue, 1943

With the ‘In Praise of the Body’ section, the exposition deals with its most controversial theme. Fashion magazines dictate trends but also silhouettes with mostly surreal bodies! Beauty and health are at the centre of their thoughts and photographers beautifully stage perfect forms and features. I would have appreciated to see a little less sleek images (even though they were stunning) and more harsh photographies that would have also demonstrated how sometimes fashion photography has gone too far in its search of perfection or over-sexualisation. Finally, I loved the last section dedicated to ‘Portraits’. In this display, the model is enhanced not only as a coat-hanger but definitely appears as an inspiring muse and superstar herself alongside the photographer. We observe the complicities, the admiration and confidence diffused in powerful or soft portraits that deliver insight into these women’s intimacy.

I surely missed a little criticism (that’s where branded displays show their limits!): what about the impact of these images on women? Nothing about controversies and scandals and there have been several scandalous spreads in the pages of Vogue! Photographers fantasize the feminine body to make readers dream but they also impose an aesthetic that 99% women cannot assume…Surely that isn’t the exhibition’s goal but I assume you can pay tribute to the splendid work of artists and still give a little information about the dark sides.

Deborah Turbeville - American Vogue, 1975

Deborah Turbeville – American Vogue, 1975

What I highly enjoyed was the installation of several garments and videos between the different thematic displays to poetically recall the photographies: a sensible way to add a little sense of reality to this ‘fake” environment. I also fancied that large reading tables were installed at the beginning and the end of the room to enable visitors read several Condé Nast (of course!) publications because that’s what magazines are made for, no? Flipping frantically through glossy pages.

 

Further Resources:

Selina’s Reading List

Nathalie Herschorfer. Coming into Fashion – A century of Photography at Condé Nast. New York, Thames& Hudson: 2012.

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Global Mode: HERA

EOC-image-Hagley-Museum-and-Library

A few weeks ago I was in the audience for “Swedish Innovations & High Street Fashion,” a conference held at the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design. Combining the academic with the commercial, the topics ranged from “Swedish fashion industry in the 20th century” by Ulrika Berglund, PhD candidate at the Centre for Fashion Studies at Stockholm University, to “‘It’s not what you do but how you do it’” by Jörgen Andersson, a long-time H&M executive and recent Uniqlo transfer.

The talks were interesting, engaging, and centered around what keynote speaker Regina Lee Blaszczyk termed “the new business history.” Instead of focusing on managerial systems at the most visible companies, Blaszczyk supports turning to small businesses, clothing companies, and objects, among many other overlooked portions of business history. She sees the clothing industry, in all its iterations, as vital to the study of business history as a whole, and the study of business history as integral to the future of fashion studies.

Professor Regina Blaszcyzk of the University of Leeds.

Professor Regina Blaszcyzk of the University of Leeds.

“Swedish Innovations & High Street Fashion” was one of many public outlets for the three-year project Blaszczyk chairs, “Enterprise of Culture.” Their plan is straightforward and exciting:

This project seeks to deepen our understanding of these developments using an interdisciplinary approach that explores the relationships among enterprise and culture. Fashion is often studied from a purely theoretical perspective, from a costume history or dress history viewpoint, or from a popular media-driven vantage point. EOC breaks new ground, using the fashion business to examine how various types of cultural encounters – between “core” fashion cities such as Paris and London and “peripheral” areas such as Sweden and Scotland, between style labs and the high street, and between fibre makers, clothing manufacturers, and retailers – stimulated innovation, and created a new and competitive industry.

Significantly, this enterprise is funded by HERA [Humanities in the European Research Area], a funding network of twenty-one humanities councils across Europe. HERA has been a generous supporter of dynamic fashion projects in the past, such as “Fashioning the Early Modern“; read my review of that conference for Worn Through here. These projects consistently bring together some of the best researchers in Europe across many disciplines, and the collaborative, multinational nature of the work is modern and forward-thinking.

It’s especially encouraging to learn about funding sources that despite (or because of?) their broad reach have chosen to fund fashion studies-based projects. In 2012 alone, HERA’s Joint Research Programme funded collaborations as different as “Cultural Encounters in Interventions against Violence” and “Travelling Texts 1790-1914: the Transnational Reception of Women’s Writing at the Fringes of Europe.” That fashion studies holds a respected place among more traditional academic topics is a major step forward.

What projects would you like to see funded? What other large and diverse geographic areas do you think deserve a similar funding source? Had you heard about HERA or their projects before?

 

Lead image source: Pierre Cardin design, 1961, for a DuPont textiles ad. From the Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware.

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Book Trailer: Stitched Up

 

 

No book review this week, but a book trailer! Tansy Hoskins writes about eco-fashion, sustainability, and worker’s rights for websites like Business of Fashion, The Guardian, and Counterfire. Her book, Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion, was released in February and I’m looking forward to reading it!

The New Yorker says book trailers are awkward; you may already have heard how absurd Jonathan Franzen thinks they are.

There seem to be very few trailers for fashion books. Why do you think that is?

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Musings on The Gentlewoman, a fashion magazine for the thoughtful reader?

For the train journey home from a recent conference I decided to buy a fashion magazine. This was quite a big deal because I rarely buy them, due to the disappointment felt by their inability to identify with my particular fashioned self. While Entwistle (2000) suggests that magazines can connect the practice of getting dressed with both the discourse and production of fashion, I think we still don’t quite know how that happens from an academic perspective. In other words, how do people who buy fashion magazines articulate what they read/see into their daily dress? Furthermore, do people challenge or critique what they read/see through their dress, and if so, how?

It is not my intention to answer these questions right now but they do seem relevant to a more nuanced understanding of how fashion and dress interconnect through the circulation and ownership of magazines. So, with some reservation about the extent to which magazines really hope to identify with me as their reader in mind, I chose one that claims to be focused on how women ‘actually look, think and dress’ in an attempt to see whether this was possible without any reference to the consumer.

First issue, published in Spring/Summer 2010

This is how I came to read The Gentlewoman, a British based bi-annual publication whose distinguishing features include an academic editor in chief, a intellectual approach to the business of fashion and an aesthetic lineage that can be traced back to the emergence of innovative style magazines in Britain during the 1980s.

Main features includes an interview with Westwood by Deborah Orr, columnist for The Guardian, and photographed by Alasdair McLellan

The current issue features a vibrant coral front cover that creates a frame around the black and white photographic portrait of Vivienne Westwood from the shoulder upwards. This singular image is given the simple banner of ‘Vivienne’. The magazine’s title is the only other wording on the front cover and both use black Helvetica typeface. There are no further captions alluding to the content within although on opening the magazine, there are approximately 62 pages of advertorial before I reach the contents and contributors lists. Despite the very minimal exterior, the first section seems no different to any other Vogue or Harpers Bazaar. In fact, The Gentlewoman seems no less keen on being desired for its ‘must have’ status than Vogue did when Condé Nast took over at the turn of the 20th century.

Feature on yoga, photographed by Lena C. Emery

However, there are details throughout The Gentlewoman that suggest this is a magazine attuned to an audience that desires something more distinct from between its covers. Firstly, there is the use of heavy cream paper for a middle section devoted to the different ways in which ‘gentlewomen’ identify with cultural products. Here is an image of someone who practices yoga and seeks out drinking alone in bars. Someone interested in architecture as much as the latest cosmetic products. The more expensive paper is dedicated to interviews with well-established fashion related personalities, such as Westwood, by contributors known for their writing various liberal, intellectual broadsheets.

Model Saskia discusses her fine art practice, photographed by Annemarieke van Drimmelen

Secondly, the fashion editorials, which make up the third section of this particular issue, are accompanied by interviews with the featured models that reveal their intellectual and creative aptitudes. I discover that a display of swimsuits are worn by a fine artist, while a range of menswear is modeled by someone with a university degree. These models are not just clothes hangers but women who live lives beyond the two-dimensional realm of fashion imagery.

Pocket detailing photographed by Maurice Scheltens and Liesbeth Abbenes

Thirdly, everything from the pared down photography with an emphasis on natural light and minimal retouching to a series of smaller editorials discussing the semantics of detailing within dress, with reference to pockets and underwear, are all underpinned by the presence of an editor in chief known for her fashion history credentials. Penny Martin, whose commercial experience includes working for Nick Knight’s SHOWStudio, studied fashion magazines for her PhD at the Royal College of Art while working at the Fawcett Society Women’s Library. With this background, which also includes curation, Martin’s intellectual clout is what arguably enables The Gentlewoman to classify itself as a magazine for intelligent women.

Penny Martin talking to fashion journalism students at London College of Fashion in 2013

Breward (2003) suggests that magazines play a crucial role in imagining how we might play out a diverse cast of fashionable lifestyles. The published fashion image not only suggests what’s to come but allows us to dream of possibilities that are often far removed from our socio-economic realities. The difficulty with The Gentlewoman is that due to its self aware sense of academic and subcultural identity, suspension of belief is not an option. The Gentlewoman is too aware of its own ironies on the one hand, its commitment to historical accuracy on the other.

The Parlour featuring stylists being made up, photographed by Devin Blair

This is particularly noticeable in a photographic editorial that features five make up/hair stylists who are shown being made up by various assistants at branded make up counters in the department store Selfridges. The images reveal only the hands of those applying the make up while the faces of the stylists display a range of naturalistic poses. I was particularly drawn to the idea of juxtaposing the unknown make up assistant with the recognized achievements of the stylists yet neither are caught looking directly at the camera so we see a moment in action, a glimpse of both, just as we might if we were there in Selfridges.

However, I was interested to discover that the hands of the make up assistants were in fact those of two hand models and so throwing into question the entire premise of this being a documentary effort. I also wondered at the decision to recreate the experience of being at a Selfridges make up counter, how in doing so, to what extent does The Gentlewoman challenge the reader’s opportunities to dream of possible lifestyles?

Although I did find an undergraduate dissertation on the subject and would love to hear more from the student on this study, overall, not much critical analysis has emerged about The Gentlewoman. In a newspaper interview with Martin by Kate Finnegan last year, I was struck by the journalist’s description of the magazine as an ‘equivalent of Slow Food’. It suggests that while reading The Gentlewoman might be an act of subversion on the one hand, it is also imbued with the philosophical aim of eventually making the fashion world a better place on the other. The reader of The Gentlewoman is one who ultimately understands that fast fashion will rarely lead to a more authentic, and in this case, more naturalized, sartorial identity. But is that really the case?

Published in 2000, this fascinating text calls for a more embodied approach to the study of fashion and dress

As I said at the beginning, not enough has been done to understand the relationship between fashion magazines and how we dress in our everyday lives. While they have always been a means to understand the top down flow of stylistic trends, since the 1950s, they have also reflected the increasingly blurred distinctions between cultural practices and objects. In this way, fashion magazines invite the reader to identify with its language, to encourage us to learn their particular vocabulary. Yet, when it comes to academic research, we still seem to focus solely on talking to journalists, photographers and editors as important cultural mediators. Why don’t we also include discussion with the people who buy magazines, to explore how fashion as image is articulated through the embodiment of dress, as Entwistle suggests?

If you are involved in research that addresses some of these questions, please do get in touch as I would really like to hear from anyone who has either developed some of Entwistle’s ideas about dress, fashion and the body or interesting methodological approaches to documenting the daily experience of getting dressed.  Also, if you have a particular view on The Gentlewoman, please do get in touch.

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From the Archives: Global Mode: The Diesel Niqab

For Easter weekend, we will look back at my post from September 2013, in which Diesel presented interpretations of religious dress in their world-famous denim.

 

When Diesel’s first ad campaign under its new artistic director, Nicola Formichetti, came out in late August, bubbles of disapproval and disappointment and loathing about one of the many images in the Reboot campaign arose and floated around blogs, Buzzfeed, and The Huffington Post. The discussion circled around a shallow “offensive/edgy” binary deemed innate to the image, which discussion commentators (and commenters) fell into naturally: here is a semi-naked, white (?), tattooed woman wearing a niqab presumably made of Diesel denim, a studded back pocket over her face as design accent. And: go.

reboot

From Diesel’s 2013 “Reboot” advertising campaign.

Huffpo asked its readers “Did Diesel cross the line?” without really drawing one in the sand; you can imagine the comments that question encouraged. The intense disagreement suggests that the question of whether this is “offensive or not”–because it’s not provocative or daring or challenging, it’s offensive…or it’s edgy–is to be determined by the individual observer, not by the cultural observer.

Some commented on Formichetti appropriating a “sacred niqab” out of its religious context to further his career, others insisted that veils are a social–not a religious–construction, and very few noted that this garment was not meant for actual consumption, not going to be following the “plus-sized” found model and Casey Legler, other models in the campaign, down any runway. Shock factor was mentioned and determined to be in very poor taste. Opinions!

There are so many question-layers of agency in the niqab image: the core issue of the agency of women in Middle Eastern countries, their societies so often clumped together, misunderstood, and ascribed the worst social woes of each; the agency of Eastern imagery and objects in Western consumerism; the role of artistic director as artist, as representative of an international brand, as a member of the fashion system.Questions of one’s Muslim-ness and whether the image offended morphed into that age-old conversation about who is “allowed” to be offended or make pronouncements about offensiveness to Muslim women.

Many Muslim women spoke out, mainly against the ad. The threat of Islamophobia in America is very, very serious and the further complication of this garment–especially as regards sexuality–can be seen as irresponsible. Responses like that of Shruti Parekh are vital to the maintenance of real, true, and thoughtful perceptions of the diversity of Middle Eastern cultures both in America and abroad. When presented in a considered manner, the opposition to this campaign helps foster “dialogue.” But I continue to be struck by the frenetic use of our generous avenues of communication by some to exploit exploitation. What is the difference between an international brand using intentionally inflammatory images to spark conversation and a fashion blogger using intentionally inflammatory language to do the same?

One difference is, of course, that even if this garment is not for sale, the rest of the collection is. Designer Kenneth Cole is another famous seeker of controversy, criticized often and loudly for his Twitter advertising “jokes” about Syria and Egypt (and sandals and riots). Cole sees his fashion-maker status as an opportunity to get people talking, and his detractors see him as exploiting international crises and news items to drive sales.Some who disagreed with his tweets created interesting and engaging opposition, but the majority found an easy target and denied Cole the “dialogue” he supposedly seeks to incite, fighting his tactics because it looks good or because someone tweeted their inspiring disappointment first and everyone loves a trending hashtag. Is Formichetti the new Cole? Should a supposedly “off-the-cuff” tweet be considered in a different context than an orchestrated campaign?

Is the Catholic imagery in another of the Reboot campaign’s advertisements too tame to incite commentary in 2013? Is a tattooed young drag queen in a studded denim mitre expected in the fashion sphere? If boychild is naked under that robe, is it offensive, or might it be construed as a clever nod to certain scandals that have plagued the church in recent years?

diesel-reboot

From Diesel’s 2013 “Reboot” advertising campaign.

Those who are offended by the interpretation of Pope Joan above might be as disheartened by the commodification and dilution of the power of their religious garments as Sana Saeed, who wrote about the Diesel niqab: “Long dreaded the day that ‘THE VEIL’ [would] become so subversive that capitalism [would] just consume it. Then this Diesel ad.” When it comes to religiously-affiliated dress, whether Catholic or Muslim (or whatever), what is powerful and what is oppressive? I think both of the pictured garments represent both of those adjectives. Do they belong in the realm of fashion advertising?

Only one writer, Angel Millar, remarked on the nature of the material used to make the “make-shift niqab,” noting the juxtaposition of All-American Denim and its freedom/democracy/mainstream/(pop?) connotations with the staid/oppressive/religious of veils:

A denim niqab seems at once to indicate a rejection of both Western values and religious literalism, and it seems to hint at the fusion of East and West on the level of material culture.

Millar gives two examples of Islam’s influence on Western fashion: Poiret and Chalayan. The first was meant to establish the long connection between the two worlds; it may be generous to say “Islam’s influence on…” instead of “The West’s co-opting of…”, but the point is: this is not as new as some think. But the use of the niqab/burqa to intentionally provoke in the Reboot ad is perhaps better compared to Chalayan’s “Burka,” a collection from 1996, which is called “challenging” and “art” (links nsfw). If Diesel had presented this niqab in a runway show as opposed to in an advertising campaign, would it have landed differently? Does Chalayan, seen as a high-fashion artist, have more leeway to explore these themes than Diesel, seen as a mass-market brand, or are their approaches fundamentally different?

How does “I am not what I appear to be” intersect with the niqab image? What are the social questions that may be answered by society at large or by a majority, as opposed to left up to each consumer, observer, and citizen? Is there a line to be crossed here, and how would you define it? Please leave your respectful comments below.

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Domestic Affairs: Spotlight on ‘Elegance in an Age of Crisis’

1930s_vionnet

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.

1930s_beach-robe 1930s_swimsuit
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’.

1930s_augustabernard Classic Neopolitan Jacket: D/B cream silk thussor six-button jacket, 1930's
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

 

Bottle green cotton velvet smoking jacket, cashmere trousers, black bowtie 1936
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.

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Parisian Insights: Roman d’une Garde-Robe at the Musée Carnavalet

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

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

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 G.Agié/Droits Réservés Prise de Vue Gerard Leyris

G.Agié – Les Mannequins, 1910.
Photographie: Les Editions du Figaro/Droits Reservés
G.Agié/Droits Réservés
Prise de Vue
Gerard Leyris

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. Patrimoine Lanvin Photography: Stéphane Piera/Galliera/Roger-Viollet

Evenning Dress – Jeanne Lanvin, 1935.
Patrimoine Lanvin
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.

 

Further Resource:

Exhibition Catalogue:

Goissiord, Sophie. Roman D’une Garde-Robe: le Chic d’une Parisienne de la Belle Epoque aux Années 30. Paris Musées, Paris: 2013.

 

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Global Mode: Maiyet via Robin Givhan

Anton Onyango Otiende and Benta Otiende, metalsmiths from Kenya. Photograph copyright Guillaume Bonn/Global Assignments at Getty Images.

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.

And concludes:

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.

“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.

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.

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Book Review: Wiener Chic

wiener chic cover

 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 Chicit 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?

Notes:

(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!

Further Reading

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.

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Parisian Insights: Alaia at the Palais Galliéra

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

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

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.

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

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

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!

Further Resources:

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.

 

 

 

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