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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You Should Be Reading: Fashion and Film

fashion books from stellafluorescent.blogspot.com

When we watch a movie, one of the major ways we come to understand its characters is through their dress. Costumes, when done well, can silently convey a great deal about the characters wearing them; when done poorly, however, they can distract audiences from the plot and leave the viewer feeling bored. The  articles below explore the role of fashion in film, from its use in post-war Berlin movies to its ability to document psychological transformation. The third article examines how audiences view the intersection of the fashion and film worlds and touches on questions about celebrity, sexuality, and gender. We hope you enjoy!

1. Choi, H., Ko, E., & Megehee, C. M. (2014). Fashion’s role in visualizing physical and psychological transformations in movies. Journal of Business Research, 67(1), 2911-2918. 

Using visual narrative art, this study looks into the images of cinema costumes and investigates how the fashion and styles in the movie reflect both the main characters’ psychological changes and their identity-forming processes. This study analyzes the transformative effect of fashion (movie costume), the development of individual characters, and social and other situational influences on the heroine in the moviePretty Woman (1990). Pretty Woman’s underlying theme is derivative from three classic fairy tales:CinderellaPygmalion, and Beauty and the Beast. Such fairy tales in movie dramas are archetypal enactments representative of deep emotional and physical transformations audiences wish to experience. Watching protagonists’ wardrobe changes and emotional transformations enables viewers to identify/self-recognize the storylines and catharses in the movies and often to achieve virtually the same experiences and emotional highs—outcomes which are the modern equivalent to Aristotle’s “proper pleasure.” – Full Article Abstract

2. Ganeva, M. (2014). Fashion amidst the ruins: Revisiting the early rubble films And the Heavens Above (1947) and The Murderers are Among Us (1946)German Studies Review, 37(1), 61-85.

This paper revisits two early rubble films from 1946 and 1947 against the background of the contemporary fashion and women’s press in Berlin in order to reconstruct a historic female experience of the immediate postwar period that goes beyond the clichéd images of the German woman asTrümmerfrauAmiflitt-chen, or a victim of rape. By taking a closer look at the presentations of clothes and various sartorial practices in these two films, this article delineates a wider range of subjective positions associated with female characters and a broader array of attractive identities offered to a predominantly female spectatorship. – Full Article Abstract

3. Kavka. (2014). Hating Madonna and loving Tom Ford: Gender, affect and the ‘extra-curricular’ celebrityCelebrity Studies, 5(1-2), 59-74.

In a recent article on the widespread media practice of ‘hating Madonna’, Naomi Wolf takes issue with the many vitriolic film reviews of Madonna’s film W.E., arguing that Madonna is punished by the press ‘whenever she steps out of her pretty-girl-pop-music bandwidth’. To make her point that there is an unspoken gender bias in the treatment of Madonna as artist, Wolf briefly compares W.E. with A Single Man, the film directed by designer Tom Ford, which received rapturous reviews. The comparative reception of these two films offers rich terrain for thinking not only about gender in relation to codifications of celebrity, but also the role of sexuality and nationality, the valuation of culture industries, and the overlapping of contemporary with historical celebrity. This paper addresses these layers of celebrity studies through the trope of the ‘extra-curricular celebrity’ who functions as a celebrity auteur. While Madonna and Tom Ford are celebrities from two different culture industries, music and fashion, their respective films are also affectively charged by historical celebrity: the ongoing negative celebrity of Wallis Simpson in W.E. and the literary celebrity of Christopher Isherwood, who wrote the novel A Single Man. In both cases, one can trace a complex set of semi-autobiographical links from film protagonist to historical celebrity to extra-curricular director that supports the starkly affective valuations of these works. – Full Article Abstract 

 

 

Image Credit: stellafluorescent.blogspot.com

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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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You Should Be Reading: Fashion and Branding

fashion books from stellafluorescent.blogspot.com

In the world of fashion, branding plays perhaps the most important role in attracting consumers’ attention, interest, and dollars. The ways in which a company promotes its image and creates awareness of the brand can have a positive or negative effect on the consumer depending on his or her values. The three articles below highlight different aspects of fashion branding, from the effect that color can have on the consumer to the innovative branding strategies of online retailers and sustainable fashion brands. These articles will make you more aware of the ways in which brands seek your attention–we hope you enjoy!

1. Lapolla, K. (2014). ModCloth: A case study in co-creative branding strategiesGlobal Fashion Brands: Style, Luxury & History, 1(1), 85-102.

This article examines how to integrate co-creation into the foundation of a brand for female millennials by using ModCloth as an innovative example. ModCloth is an American online clothing retailer that specializes in vintage, vintage-inspired and indie designer apparel. The observational research uses the building blocks of co-creation (dialogue, access, risk assessment and transparency) defined by C. K. Prahalad and V. Ramaswamy as an initial framework for understanding approaches that invite and encourage customer participation in a brand. According to Prahalad and Ramaswamy, value creation is shifting from product-centric to personalized consumer experiences based on interactions between consumers, consumer communities and companies. An analysis of ModCloth’s company, e-commerce website and online community provides insights for opportunities to enhance company/customer interaction. This analysis extends the building blocks of Prahalad and Ramaswamy and is simplified into a new framework that places dialogue at the centre of a co-creative branding strategy. As a result of this research, the framework serves to illustrate dialogue as an entry point to access, risk assessment and transparency. – Full Article Abstract

2. Ridgway, J., & Myers, B. (2014). A study on brand personality: Consumers’ perceptions of colours used in fashion brand logosInternational Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education, 7(1), 50-57.

Creating a likeable, relatable brand personality is one way that fashion brands can connect with consumers and increase profits. However, few studies have investigated how consumers perceive personality traits from a fashion brand’s marketing communications. The colour used in marketing communications is a powerful tool that helps consumers to make inferences about fashion brands. The purpose of this study was to investigate whether, upon exposure to a brand logo, consumers will assign personality traits to the brand that correspond with commonly held colour associations. An online survey was conducted with a national sample to test the hypotheses of the study. Findings indicated that consumers attributed brand personality traits to brand logo colours according to commonly held colour associations for some of the colours in the study. Knowing how consumers perceive the colours used in brand logos will help marketers to convey the appropriate brand personality traits of their brand. – Full Article Abstract

3. Weiss, C., Trevenen, A., & White, T. (2014). The branding of sustainable fashionFashion, Style & Popular Culture, 1(2), 231-258.

The major focus of this article is to highlight the consumer’s understanding of sustainable practices in the context of fashion branding and how it relates to purchasing behaviour. The authors questioned 151 consumers through snowball surveys transmitted via social media to measure consumer receptiveness to sustainability as a marketing issue. They suggest there is potential value for both wholesale and retail companies to create sustainability standards and branding methods in order to highlight this important message; such efforts could include an industry-wide logo, trademark or rating system. The authors argue that a concerted educational campaign is needed to promote mainstream consumer awareness and adoption of sustainability standards. The results of the study show that consumers do value products made using sustainable practices. Moreover, when asked if it made a big difference in their purchasing decisions, the answer was yes, as long as the price did not increase significantly. The conundrum was that many respondents we surveyed just did not seem to fully understand the meaning of sustainability. As a result, the authors recommend a threefold action plan for the fashion industry: 1. Convey and educate in an easy, transparent way what sustainability means for the consumer, clarifying the myriad of mixed meanings within the industry; 2. Consolidate and streamline industry standards and create federal benchmarks for measuring the sustainability of fashion manufacturing processes. This will prevent companies from ‘green-washing’ their products through trumped-up advertising; and 3. Establish and publicize a standard sustainability logo, trademark or ranking system to provide consistent product labelling and allow consumers to choose sustainably manufactured products. – Paraphrased Article Abstract

 

Image Credit: stellafluorescent.blogspot.com

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Rat Race: Getting Noticed

As a young academic, especially as I draw closer to the end of my PhD, I am increasingly realising the importance of getting noticed. As students enter their post-MA or post-PhD world, they inevitably need to stand out from the crowd in order to reach the next stage in their careers, whether that is a PhD scholarship, a post-doc, a museum post, or a teaching position. The easiest way to do this is to increase people’s awareness of your work. I touched on this in my posts on internships and conference papers, however this post will also look at social media and networking.

There are five main things which I feel are essential in building that vital reputation.

1) Experience

It is essential to gain experience in your chosen field. If you want to go into academia, get teaching experience. If you want to work in museums, volunteer and undertake internships. If you want to go into fashion journalism, write and publish. I have personally been offered paid work out of volunteering and internships, so cannot emphasise enough how useful this can be.

2) Web Presence

Although maybe young academics find posts without it, I think that building a web presence is a massive boost, but only if it is a positive one. Join twitter, write your own blog, keep an academic profile, join academia.edu, join LinkedIn. All these things are massively helpful not just in getting you noticed, but in enabling people to have a good idea about what you do. Like it or not, online academic ‘stalking’ happens. People will google your name, and the more impressive your web presence, the more engaged and active you will seem. However, you must maintain your common sense. Posts about wine at post-conference social gatherings are fine, but make sure you don’t go beyond the ‘approachable but professional‘ boundary.

3) Conference Attendance

Keep attending conferences, and keep giving conference papers. Even when you’re in your final writing up stage, and not producing any more new research, do keep your face and name out there. Even when you’ve graduated, if you’re in a stop-gap job, try to keep presenting. This keeps your name in the minds of your peers, and keeps you engaged with current research. My own conference presentations have led to offers to write articles (sometimes paid) for magazines, to write review articles for journals, and offers of work.

4) Publications

Although getting into publishing is a complicated business, as I explored in a previous post, it is important to keep trying. Moreover, once you’ve got something published, don’t relax and think you’ve got that box ticked. The more you have published the better. If you’re struggling to get journal publications, write a blog and write for magazines.

5) Keep working! 

The hardest thing to do when you have people constantly telling you about all the extra things you should be doing is to keep your thesis afloat. It is important to remember that your thesis is your priority. If you’re struggling to juggle conferences, social media, publications and your research, your research has to come first. It is all well and good looking impressive to people, but you have to have to research to back in up.

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Book Review: American Cool

cover American cool

Weren’t we taught that starting with a dictionary definition of your subject is totally uncool? Or was that unscholarly, unprofessional? Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear defy that classroom convention in their new book, American Cool, by taking a page from a jazz dictionary: automatic validation. The quote comes from A Jazz Lexicon, compiled in 1964 by Robert S Gold, and it is actually an inspiring start to this big book of cool, a complement to the National Portrait Gallery exhibition of the same name happening throughout most of this year:

From the book "American Cool" by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

From the book “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Suggested review-reading listening:

American Cool kicks off with essays by the editors, Dinerstein tackling the history of cool’s social construction and Goodyear examining how photography is inextricable from that process. Their work is academic but accessible, with thoughtful but recognizable examples, in laid-back, informed prose. The straightforward essays are highly quotable on the subject of cool, and their writing will not only appeal to but also draw in a wide crowd. There’s a lot of fun swearing that happens (part of being cool is “not giving a shit” (15)), and the relaxed intentions fit the characters introduced. The authors come up with interesting quasi-definitions of cool (while acknowledging its indefinability), and make it clear that cool is not only relative person to person but also generationally, morally, and emotionally. John Wayne is one person’s cowboy hero and another’s hyper-traditional he-man.

Bruce Lee holds it down for Asian-Americans in "American Cool" by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014. Photographer unidentified, in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Bruce Lee holds it down for Asian-Americans in “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014. Photographer unidentified, in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

For me, the text was overshadowed by an apparent assumption that their readership doesn’t have a strong grasp of the Civil Rights Movement in America, or by a fear that we still just don’t get how racist America was). Dinerstein especially spends a lot of time explaining the racial background and makeup of both the phenomenon of cool and the book; at times borderline apologetic and acknowledging the Burden. I don’t want to discourage this kind of positive revisionist history, but it sometimes read like American Studies over-compensation.

While not exactly disconnected from the subject, the authors’ otherness shows as they write platitudes like “Such are the absurdities of a racist society” and make funny word choices such as: “For all his achievements, [Frederick Douglass] remained a black man in a deeply prejudiced nation.” Dinerstein’s frustration with the rarity of the cool woman is somewhat neutralized by his description of Louise Brooks as “luminous” and Zora Neale Hurston as “sassy” (she’s black!), while their male counterpart Malcom X has fierce, steely pride and Thelonious Monk is a genius. (15) The grammatical authority exerted by capitalizing bell hooks’ name: would that have happened in an exhibition at or book from MoMA?

The outsider position isn’t necessarily detrimental; their distance allows the subject to continue to exist on its higher, unknowable plane; something we can write about, approach with logic, but maybe not really understand (which is what we like about coolness in the first place)There is other space for writing about/presenting cool in a cool way.

It is certainly an inclusive crowd filling the pages, but not a diverse one; the only cool Asian-American dude is Bruce Lee, and Selina is one of very few Latin-American persons celebrated. Dinerstein writes that black culture IS cool culture:

“A set of conditions for generational cool are often forged at the intersection of youth culture, popular culture, and African American culture, from swing to rock and roll to funk to hip-hop, from language to dance to fashion to aesthetics. …Cool is in large part an African American concept. Black Americans invented the concepts of hip and cool–both traceable to concepts in many African cultures–and the terms first crossed over from New York’s jazz culture in the late 1940s.” (13, italics in original)

Spread of Cool and Counterculture Ladies: Joan Didion (photo copyright Julian Wasser, 1970) and Angela Davis (photo copyright Stephen Shames, in the National Portrait Gallery). From the book "American Cool" by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Spread of Cool and Counterculture Ladies: Joan Didion (photo copyright Julian Wasser, 1970) and Angela Davis (photo copyright Stephen Shames, 1969, in the National Portrait Gallery Collection). From the book “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

The writing supports and introduces a set of striking photographs; one of the four main criteria for inclusion in this book was that the person was caught looking cool and photographed (the one exception is Walt Whitman, whose cool was etched after a daguerrotype). The visual record is necessary for an exhibition of portraits, but here is evidence that cool is so essential to certain humans that it can be captured on film–to say nothing of the photographer’s talents.

Too cool for photography: Engraving after a daguerrotype of Walt Whitman, by Samuel Hollyer, c.1854-55. In the National Portrait Gallery collection and featured in the book "American Cool" by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Too cool for photography: Engraving after a daguerrotype of Walt Whitman, by Samuel Hollyer, c.1854-55. In the National Portrait Gallery collection and featured in the book “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Dinerstein explains the selection process in his introduction:

We created a historical rubric for cool*, and a given nominee had to pass the test. It has four central elements, and every figure here carries at least three: (1) originality of artistic vision and especially of a signature style; (2) cultural rebellion or transgression in a given historical moment; (3) iconicity, or a certain level of high-profile recognition; and (4) recognized cultural legacy.” (15)

Goodyear makes the case for photograph as the best means of capturing “cool”:

“Most basically, [photography] acts to mediate the public’s understanding of and engagement with these individuals. Photographic representations circulate more widely than those in any other medium. Like peepholes into another world, photographs make visible something special beyond our immediate grasp.” (44)

The photographs that follow are strictly American; they and their subjects exemplify the trickle-up, working-class cool that contrasted with aristocratic sprezzatura, sangfroid, and duende. Separated into four chronological sections, we examine the Roots of Cool (Before 1940), The Birth of Cool (1940-59), Cool & Counterculture (1960-79), and the Legacies of Cool (1980-present). Full-page portraits of various angles, poses, and viewpoints also constitute a history of photography, a medium which is itself considered cool, or something that cool people create.

Louise Brooks (photograph copyright Nickolas Muray, in the IMPF in Rochester, NY) and James Cagney (photograph copyright Edward Weston, in the National Portrait Gallery). Pages from the book "American Cool" by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Louise Brooks (photograph copyright Nickolas Muray, in the IMPF in Rochester, NY) and James Cagney (photograph copyright Edward Weston, in the National Portrait Gallery). Pages from the book “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Its past outsiderism as an art form adds to the cachet of the medium to capture and exhibit the elusive characteristic of cool. Many of the photographs are in the National Portrait Gallery collection, but the curators also loaned from collections both public and private, creating a very interesting visual mix. All but two of the 76 pictures taken pre-1980 are black and white. This makes for easier comparison and nice continuity in the book; I can only imagine the impact in the gallery.

Sometimes an interesting pair is coupled; here Lenny Bruce (copyright Julian Wasser, 1960) and Malcolm X (Photograph copyright Henri Cartier Bresson, in the National Portrait Gallery). From the book "American Cool" by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Sometimes an interesting pair is coupled; here Lenny Bruce (copyright Julian Wasser, 1960) and Malcolm X (Photograph copyright Henri Cartier Bresson, in the National Portrait Gallery). From the book “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Oh right: clothing. It’s here; each of these historical figures uses clothing to create a persona, a personality. Dinerstein and Goodyear included a sense of style–notably not a fashion sense–as the first necessary attribute for inclusion in their Top 100. Subcultures, the fermenting pots of cool, are often identified by their clothing; it is a Bourdieuvian exercise. Everyone can identify cool, but those in the know can quickly sniff out those who are just pretending. Those on the outside, on the other hand, often stereotype or iconify a group’s sartorial markers for easy identification (leather, sunglasses; fringe, love beads; skinny jeans).

Goodyear notes: “Cool has long had its own vernacular language, but it has also developed over time its own visual vocabulary as well. The manner in which an individual wears certain clothes, styles his or her hair, and adopts a particular accessory (e.g. cigarettes, sunglasses, motorcycles, leather) suggests an allegiance to a particular code or, conversely, a disavowal of convention. Likewise, one’s expression, posture, or action can also signal the nature of a person’s relationship with a larger audience. Hard to codify, endless in their variation, yet frequently imitated and subject to incessant change, these personas are not only photogenic but also important to one’s creative expression.” (45)

Thelonious Monk, photographed by William Paul Gottlieb in 1947. Shades inside, beret, "as if hiding in plain sight." From the book "American Cool" by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Thelonious Monk, photographed by William Paul Gottlieb in 1947. Shades inside, beret, “as if hiding in plain sight.” From the book “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Dinerstein and Goodyear make use of clothing descriptions most often to describe black celebrities’ “defiance of racism,” such as Lester Young’s sunglasses at night and porkpie hat (coupled with “impenetrable personal slang”), Monk’s glasses and beret, or Fredrick Douglass:

In particular, [Douglass] sought a sense of dignity and refinement through formal dress most commonly associated at the time with white men of stature. In this self-fashioning, he proclaimed his independence and his equality and refuted racist assumptions about black masculinity. Yet Douglass’s appropriation of white fashion did not constitute a rejections of his own blackness. (43-44)

These quotations and ideas are very important to include in a volume on self-presentation, visual splendor, and the creation of cool, but for the knowledgeable researcher these statements may echo shallowly. There’s little about how Hank Williams used his cowboy hat, for comparison. That said, no one in the book is reduced to his or her wardrobe–not even Audrey Hepburn, whose film roles and work toward redefining womanhood come before Holly’s Givenchy dress.

Missy Elliot photographed by David LaChapelle, 1999, copyright David LaChapelle. From the book "American Cool" by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Missy Elliot photographed by David LaChapelle, 1999, copyright David LaChapelle. From the book “American Cool” by Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear, 2014.

Like the much-admired books collecting August Sander’s portraiture, this book would be a rich visual resource for fashion and costume designers. But outside of the exhibition, where the aura of the photographic work and the impressive gallery space create a certain experience, why buy a book like this instead of searching the troves of vintage celebrity photographs on the web? The essays, certainly, which loop nicely around the chosen photographs, and the curated nature of the selections as a group. There were only a few names that might be unfamiliar to the reader; it is the context and the whole that make this book engaging. To appease those whose favorite did not make the cut, there is an “Alt-100,” an appendix of runners-up.

For a comparison study, please refer to The Impossible Cool, a tumblr that collects photographs much like these in scrollable form. Many of the faces are the same, but the range is wider and obviously less “permanent.” Dinerstein suggests that their book is “not the last word on cool, but the first one: I see this as a recuperation of cool, an attempt to provide a useful framework for an elusive concept.” (19) If American cool had lost its punch as the authors suggest, I think they give us ample proof that it still exists, and will continue to thrive and myth-make through the increasingly eternal medium of photography.

Have you been to this exhibit, or do you plan to? Do you follow any blogs, tumblrs, etc with “vintage” photos of celebrities that you want to share? What does cool mean to you, and can it be found in photographs? Let us know below! 

Notes:

*said no one cool, ever.

Find more book reviews on Worn Through here!

Further Resources:

Buckland, Gail. Who Shot Rock and Roll: A Photographic History, 1955-Present. New York: Knopf, 2009.

Gladwell, Malcolm. “The Coolhunt.” The New Yorker, March 17, 1997.

Gold, Robert S. A Jazz Lexicon. New York: Knopf, 1964.

McAdams, Lewis. Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant-Garde. New York: Free Press, 2001.

Pountain, Dick and David Robins. Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude. London: Reaktion Books, 2000.

Stearns, Peter. American Cool: Constructing a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style. New York: NYU Press, 1994.

 

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‘Isms in Fashion’: A Panel Discussion at London College of Fashion

 

zoesterling-BetterLivesSalesForce

Last night I was able to attend the last of a series of talks curated by Dr Carolyn Mair, MA course leader at London College of Fashion (LCF), and entitled ‘Looking Ahead…isms in Fashion’.  Previous talks in the series have covered topics such as ageism, racism and ableism, underlining LCF’s initative Better Lives, which aims to develop our understanding of sustainaiblity within the business of fashion.   This final presentation was a panel discussion between a range of diverse speakers, all asked to reflect upon what the Chair, Dr Phil Sams, suggested were ‘tools’ at our disposal in effecting positive change upon a range of long-held stereotypes within the fashion industry.

James Partridge, founder and CEO of UK charity Changing Faces

James Partridge, founder and CEO of UK charity Changing Faces

The discussion was structured around brief presentations by all the speakers and the order of service was well considered.  It began with two very positive, eloquent and engaging introductions by James Partridge, the founder and Chief Executive of Changing Faces, the distinguished UK charity supporting people with disfigurements, and Caryn Franklin MBE, fashion broadcaster and co-founder of All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, an independent organization focused on challenging stereotypes of body ideals within the fashion industry.

All Walks on the Catwalks 2013 campaign to diversify media representation of body shapes

All Walks Beyond the Catwalks 2013 campaign to diversify media representation of body shapes

Both were able to raise questions about fashion, well-being and diversity that struck a personal chord with the audience.  James engaged us by revealing just how many people know someone with a disfigurement while noting how research suggests we still psychologically associate negative characteristics with people based upon their physical appearance.  Caryn suggested we consider what is meant by ‘success’ not just within the fashion industry but when we get dressed every morning.  Caryn asked us whether what we chose to wear was an experience of anxiety and conformity or affirmation and individualisation.  This personal approach to the subject of exclusion, identity and fashion was certainly inspiring.  While Caryn talked of the ‘extraordinary’ as a profitable antidote to the emphasis on normalization within the business of fashion, James highlighted a recent media campaign by Illamasqua, a cosmetics company, whose slogan ‘beauty is imperfection’ helped to recognize facial diversity within society.

Illamasqua 2013 'Imperfection' campaign featuring a model with a facial birthmark

Illamasqua 2013 ‘Imperfection’ campaign featuring a model with a facial birthmark

However, for me, the highlight of the panel discussion was the elucidating contributions by the last two speakers.  Firstly, Dr Chris Pawson, a community psychologist and Principal Lecturer in Clinical & Community Psychology at the Institute for Research in Child Development, reminded us of how external circumstances, such as socio-economic systems, can negatively impact upon our mental well-being. As he put it, some people definitely have a rougher time of it than others.  To only suggest a range of therapeutic methods that focus on self-improvement fails to address wider communal issues.  Chris drew our attention to the way in which stereotypes are the products of socialization, not just cognitive hardwiring as referred to by other panel and audience members.  Chris also voiced the oppression felt by young people when faced with pressure to conform to fashion trends or particular ways of dressing in order to be fully accepted into society, however, he was equally optimistic about fashion’s contribution to enhanced self-esteem.

M&S 2013 clothing campaign featuring Helen Mirren (actress), Tracey Emin (artist) and Katie Piper (philanthropist)

M&S 2013 clothing campaign featuring Helen Mirren (actress), Tracey Emin (artist) and Katie Piper (philanthropist)

Chris was followed by Dr Carolyn Mair, the primary instigator behind these talks, who pointed out that fashion was still a very narrow business in terms of social representation, reflected in the fact that a third of Britain’s population are over the age of fifty yet barely seen in fashion representation. However, the fact that the clothes worn by Helen Mirren and Tracey Emin in the recent Marks & Spencer (M&S) campaign were the first to sell out clearly highlight the profits of appealing to a more diverse fashion consumer.

Both Chris and Carolyn brought a critical eye to a discussion that covered explicit themes such as the normalization of dress, identity and diversity, yet, arguably, more implicit themes of exclusion, anxiety and conformity were less considered.  Here, it might have been interesting to include Daniel Miller, material anthropologist at UCL, or Rebecca Arnold, fashion historian at the Courtauld Institute of Art, who have both written about the various ways in which fashion and dress manifests anxieties around a range of issues, including perceived body ideals.

Instead, the final contribution to the discussion was given by Zowie Broach, co-creator of Boudicca, a London based design house, whose practitioner stance would offer insight into how fashion design might help to improve our lives.   Unfortunately, her presentation with its focus on a recent art piece rather than the inherent structural challenges of working in fashion failed to engage me despite her being considerably moved by what the other speakers had to say.  Zowie observed that the issues raised all made her feel quite ‘sad’.  Yet it seems to me that if the fashion industry and the public are to move forward in terms of broadening our perception of what is ‘normal’, perhaps it is better to transform this sympathy, which rarely resolves and more often condones ‘isms’, into an empathy so we can start to imagine ourselves in the body/dress of another in an effort to see the world from their perspective.

Boudicca’s The Liquid Game, 2014 ( audio-visual installation)

The final audience discussion was disappointing, with very little time allowed to hear a range of questions, and was not helped by the panel Chair, who drew upon previously featured speakers amongst the audience for contributions rather than pursue lesser well-known faces amongst the sitting crowd.  This was a missed opportunity to have a dialogue about ‘isms’ in more depth and perhaps in future, the panel might consider asking audience members for questions in advance.

Yet, despite these minor criticisms, the discussion was a useful starting point for thinking about cultural values, as both social and psychological phenomenon, and broader concerns about sustainability of the fashion industry.  As Sandy Black has made clear, the notion of ethical or sustainable fashion is paradoxical: while the industry operates on wastefulness and obsolescence, it simultaneously claims to be our ecological and economic ally.[1]  This is perhaps why it is a challenge for designers such as Boudicca to be understood in a more critical light.  But, last night’s discussion went some small way towards more intellectual reflection of cultural practices and their influence upon our efforts to ‘do better’ by fashion and by default by our complex, dressed social lives.

Finally, if you are studying anything to do with dress, fashion and mental health, I would love to hear from you.  Recently, here in the UK, it was revealed that one in four people have a mental health disability.  How might this impact upon people, especially when it is also often hidden from the normative gaze?  How does the role of dress function within this newly emerging socio-cultural context?


[1] p252, Sandy Black ‘Ethical Fashion and EcoFashion’ in Steele, Valerie (ed) (2010) The Berg Companion to Fashion New York, Berg.

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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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2nd Annual Research Award Winners!

We were so thrilled to be able to offer our research award again this year.

This is the second time we’ve offered the award and once again there were smart and thoughtful entries. For 2014 we made some changes and offered one award for a student and one for a working professional.

If you’re wondering, the money comes from advertisers. So, please consider advertising if you work for a school, a museum, an auction house, a costume house, a publisher, or something of that nature that appeals to readers. Your money goes to a good cause!

The award is to help support researchers in apparel fields for travel, publishing, presenting, image rights, interviews, or other things of that nature. (It does not go to institutions, strictly individuals or teams).

This year’s winners are:

Susan Neill
She is using the funds to assist with a research trip to the Fashion Institute of Technology for her project on Couturier Bob Bugnand. That project is being presented at CSA and submitted for publication soon.

Sophie Pitman
She is using the funds to assist with her research at the Museum of London into Elizabethan and Jacobean clothing. She plans to help do cataloging for the museum. This work will then inform her PhD thesis.

Best wishes to them both and we look forward to their blog posts here on Worn Through detailing their experiences. Also thank you again to all who applied and we encourage you to apply again next year.

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You Should Be Reading: Fashion and Individuality

fashion books from stellafluorescent.blogspot.com

Traditionally, fashion has both celebrated and punished individuality. Over the years, men and women have been mocked for particular fashions that at other times are quite popular. We are often encouraged to be unique and be “ourselves”, but to do so within certain boundaries. In contemporary society, there is an enormous variety of styles and aesthetic ideals, almost to to the point of rendering individuality impossible. What does it mean to be an individual in today’s fashion world? What do we expect from our fashion retailers in this regard? What about from our fashion models? These three articles below explore those questions, addressing styles like the now ubiquitous Converse All Stars, the concept of fast fashion co-branding (driven by consumers’ need for uniqueness), and the once derided maxillary midline diastema (AKA “gap teeth”), which has in recent years become the calling card of several high fashion models. We hope you enjoy!

1. Lewis, K. C., Sherriff, M., & Denize, E. S. (2014). Change in frequency of the maxillary midline diastema appearing in photographs of Caucasian females in two fashion magazines from 2003 to 2012. Journal of Orthodontics, doi 10.1179/1465313313Y.0000000081.

The objective of this study is to ascertain if there has been a change in the frequency of appearance of maxillary midline diastema in two leading women’s fashion magazines over a decade. Two observers counted the frequency of maxillary midline diastema that appeared in Caucasian female models featured in British Vogue and Glamour (UK). An increase in the frequency of maxillary midline diastema appearing in both publications was observed between 2003 and 2012. This change may indicate an increase in the acceptance of the maxillary midline diastema, which may in turn influence orthodontic and aesthetic dentistry treatment planning. – Paraphrased Article Abstract

2. Mackinney-Valentin, M. (2014). Mass-individualism: Converse All Stars and the paradox of sartorial sameness. Clothing Cultures, 1(2), 127-142.

Through a study of Converse All Stars sneakers, this article explores an apparent paradox in the notion of ‘individuality’ in current fashion consumption where the potential freedom of choice among consumers in Denmark appears to have led to a sartorial sameness rather than radical pluralism. The concept of mass-individualism is used as a vehicle for understanding this paradox that is heightened both by the social value attributed to individuality in much of contemporary Western society and the image of All Stars as a symbol of individuality and self-expression. The concept is seen as part of an ambiguous strategy of status representation operating on conditions of fashion democracy. The study is interview-based and focuses on consumers aged seven to 71 in the greater Copenhagen area in which All Stars may be considered a transplanted, American cultural icon. Themes of undercoding and visual assemblage run through the exploration of mass-individualism in contemporary fashion. – Full Article Abstract 

3. Shen, B., Jung, J., Chow, P-S., & Wong, S. (2014). Co-branding in fast fashion: The impact of consumers’ need for uniqueness on purchase perceptionFashion Branding and Consumer Behaviors, 101-112.

Co-branding is deemed as an effective strategy of brand development and has been largely adopted by fast fashion brands such as H&M. A fast fashion brand collaborating with a luxury designer fashion brand is recognized as “fast fashion co-branding.” This study explores the consumers’ need for uniqueness and purchase perception of fast fashion co-brands, which also relates to the consumers satisfaction and welfare. A self-administered survey questionnaire was employed in main shopping areas in Hong Kong and 175 valid respondents were obtained. The empirical results show that the consumers’ needs for uniqueness among the associated fashion brands have significant differences. The impact of their need for uniqueness on the purchase perception of fast fashion co-brands is also revealed. This study gives an important implication of fast fashion co-brands on consumer-purchasing behavior and provides managerial insights to companies’ co-branding strategies centered on fashion brands of different brand positioning. – Full Article Abstract 

 

Image Credit: stellafluorescent.blogspot.com

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