Six months ago, I started to write for Worn Through as a regular UK contributor and over that period I hoped to not only review London exhibitions and events but also interview people and get out beyond the capital to capture dress and fashion studies further afield. On reflection, while I think I have achieved the former, the latter has proved more challenging, particularly when teaching full-time in the spring semester. However, I am excited to say that I will soon share my first interview, featuring Jasleen Kandhari, a textile and art historian specialising in Asian textiles. So, although it’s taken half a year, I am beginning to fulfil more of my initial brief!
To mark this six month occasion, I want to highlight a few interesting exhibitions across the country as well as those taking place in my hometown this summer. It’s nice to be able to stop and take the long view half way through the year before moving forward again. And I was very inspired by Brenna’s Domestic Affairs posts that provide a brilliant round up of American exhibitions and events.
In commemorating this year’s centenary of the First World War, both the Bowes Museum in Durham and Chertsey Museum in Surrey have displays focusing on clothing and fashion from the era until the end of August. Interestingly, Bowes Museum have chosen to work with BA Hons Fashion Design and Marketing Programme students from Northumbria University to create an exhibition that not only features clothes worn during the period but also contemporary designs inspired by the times. I think this is an interesting idea because often historical events can seem very remote to a young audience but by embodying history into clothing design, it is possible to learn about and, perhaps more importantly, empathise with the past.
Opening on 1st August, the fascinating exhibition Eye of the Needle at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford tells the story of 17th century embrodieries through the context of women and girls’ social roles and responsibilities. Guest curated by Dr Mary Brooks, the exhibition features pieces from the Feller Collection, of which many have never been publicly displayed before. The exhibition runs until the beginning of October.
Back here in London, there is much to choose from with Return of the Rudeboy at Somerset House, Made in Mexico: The Rebozo at the Fashion and Textile Museum, The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk at the Barbican and The Glamour of Italian Fashion at the V&A 1945- 2014, all open until August. In addition, Kensington Museum has a new permanent display, which focuses on how everyday fashions have influenced the dress of members of the Royal Family. Fashion Rules is on display until summer 2015.
I am impressed by the diversity of approach to dress and fashion studies across these exhibitions – it’s good to see only one focused upon a specific designer! I am hoping to get to as many as I can over the teaching break. It would be great to hear your recommendations or experiences of other exhibitions and events taking place this summer in the UK – just add to the comments below!
Top image: Interior view from Return of the Rudeboy at Somerset House, June 2014.
Cultural studies print and online journal Situations: Cultural Studies in the Asian Context will be hosting an international conference on December 12-13, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea. The aim of this conference is not so much to critique the East Asian contemporary music industries as to empirically analyze them—in terms of their commercial strategies, their creative potential and their range of cultural expression.
Starting in the early 1980s, a variety of popular East Asian musical pop forms began to explore the possibility of breaking beyond their national borders in order to win for themselves new levels of international exposure and influence. Taking their cues from Cantopop and J-pop, these new East Asian popular music forms, drawing on such global trends as Europop and rhythm & blues, reggae and hip-hop, house and techno, soon won for themselves mass followings in North and South East Asia. More recently still, they have begun to reach out to new fan bases in the Middle East, North and South America and Eastern and Western Europe.
The result of this has been an increasingly homogenized set of youth styles and performances and unprecedented levels of profit, overseen by a relatively small network of musical management companies. For example, according to Billboard estimates, “the Korean music industry grossed nearly $3.4 billion in the first half of 2012 … a 27.8% increase from the same period last year.” What is more, these figures belie the actual sums of money being generated. According to CJ E&M, a major Seoul media company, “record sales account for about 40% of the major management companies’ revenue. The other 60% comes from having their stars appear on everything from energy-drink labels to soap operas.” These new pop forms now exist alongside an array of more traditional forms, some of which are also seeking out ways to make their presence felt in the more competitive capital-intensive contemporary pop market.
What is the cultural and commercial logic of these major musical entertainment industries? What can cultural theories say about contemporary celebrity and idol culture? What do we have to say about music and dance performance, cosmetic surgery and diet routines, scandal and gossip, as aspects of wider commercial and cultural management strategies? How have the major musical management companies succeeded in displacing other musical forms from the national imagination? What are the risks and rewards of an increasingly homogenized musical style? How can traditional (trot, enka, pansori) and alternative forms (jazz, blues, punk) best position themselves in a highly capitalized marketplace?
Possible topics of the conference include, but are NOT limited to:
- The Financial Bases of the Major East Asian Entertainment Companies
- The Evolution of Girl Groups and Boy Bands (Music, Dance, Image, Marketing)
- Music Performance: TV, Youtube, Lap Top and Mobile Technology
- K-Pop Songwriting as Commerce and Creativity
- The Growing Eroticization of Dance Performance
- Fads, Trends, Gossip, Scandals: The Making of Pop News
- Fan Groups, Social Networking, Subcultures
- J-Pop, K-Pop, Canto-Pop: Fads and Fashions
- The Role of Impromptu Street and Live Performances
- Jazz and Blues in the Contemporary Music Scene
- Traditional and Alternative Musical Forms in a Highly Capitalized Market
Each presenter will offer a 20-minute presentation of a projected 6,000-word academic paper. That presenter will then be invited to take part in a formal question-and-answer session with other panelists and audience members.
Deadline: Abstracts (300 words maximum), full texts or other suitable material must be submitted via email to firstname.lastname@example.org by August 15 2014.
Be advised that all accepted participants are expected to turn this initial presentation into a finished 6,000-word paper for possible inclusion in a future issue of our journal, Situations: Cultural Studies in the Asian Context. The deadline for completed papers is November 15 2014. Should you have any questions or require more information, please do not hesitate to contact the conference coordinators, at email@example.com.
The basic premise that “everybody needs to dress” enables historians to examine to which extent individuals and groups define themselves by means of clothing, fashion and beauty ideals, or whether (and how) they disassociate themselves from these ideals. In short, whether intended by the respective actors or not, (self-)identifications, categorizations, self-images and feelings of belonging can be clarified within this framework.
Did people over the course of history also try to express national, religious or political belonging through their clothes? In these respects, manifestations of power relations can come into focus, whether in terms of the relationship between (state) authorities and individuals or with regard to social stratification, interactions between the individual and the collective, generational differences or gender roles. A historical perspective and a focus on various geographical areas and communities enable us to emphasize the constructed and dynamic nature of concepts of fashion and beauty.
This three-day-workshop, with ample room for discussion, will explore how ideals of clothing, fashion and beauty as categories of analysis provide a new perspective upon historical processes of negotiation in the context of nation-building and during the implementation of social projects and utopias.
It aims for a broad geographical coverage with regard to the contributions. The chronological focus should be on the modern period. The focus lies on both the actors, who determined and shaped the processes of negotiation as to what was considered “fashionable”, and on the analysis of tension in the economic, medial, political and social realms that were the driving forces behind far more visible manifestations.
Clothing, fashion, and beauty should in principle be reflected and discussed as a historical category of analysis. Of interest are, among other things, methodological and theoretical approaches (for instance of visual culture studies, of material culture, performativity, body history, etc.), whose applicability should be examined by using historical case studies.
The workshop will be held in English.
The committee invites researchers to submit abstracts for short presentations (in English), which are connected to the aforementioned topics. The inclusion of historical sources is considered a requirement.
Deadline: A 250 words abstract must be submitted by August 1, 2014 via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Participants will be informed by August 15, 2014 about the results.
Costs for accommodation over the course of the workshop and travel expenses (to some extent) of invited speakers will be covered by the organizers.
Funded by the German Historical Institute (DHI) Warsaw and the Institute for the History of the German Jews (IGdJ), Hamburg
In The Language of Clothes, the author Alison Lurie suggests that a bride’s preference for a one off all white outfit can be what the earlier costume commentator Prudence Glynn describes as wanting on the one hand “one marvelous, escapist, romantic moment in an otherwise drab life” or, on the other “by wearing archaic dress she is stating her unconscious belief that the ceremony itself is archaic.”
Display featuring the pink background and in the foreground, an ensemble of accessories dating from the early to mid 19th century. www.adorngirl.com
Wedding Dresses 1775-2014, the latest exhibition in the V&A’s wonderful Fashion Galleries, certainly appears to embrace this perceived romance and escapism of what to wear on the special day with its emphasis on a ‘western wedding style’, predominantly British, in sartorial form. Upon entering the exhibition, the visitor finds herself looking at a timeline of white dresses, displayed against pink walls, with curvy fonts highlighting the wonder of weddings as expressed by a range of contemporary cultural commentators. Once on the upper gallery, it is possible to see huge projections of photographs showing the more current dresses on their owners, in-situ, replete with soft focus edges and flowery transitions. This exhibition holds to the ideals associated with a particular normative notion of femininity, where weddings are a bride’s ultimate dream rather than a complex socio-cultural event where ideas and values are negotiated through dress.
Jenny Bishop in Ian Stuart wedding dress, with the exhibition in the background. Victoria & Albert Museum.
Despite there being several outfits on display that make reference to different religious systems, local traditions and economic groups, these often felt like a novel footnote to the main body of text rather than a full paragraph or chapter. The primacy of the ‘western wedding style’ meant that it was hard for me to place experiences such as the double wedding of my Trinidadian neighbour, who celebrated her nuptials in both a Hindi and Christian ceremony, into this exhibition. Similarly, I struggled to find examples of the angst experienced by many brides to be when it comes to finding the one dress, knowing that it is likely not to be worn again. I recall one friend who decided to overcome this challenge by buying a dress for 99p on Ebay while another gave herself only one day to find something to wear, recounting the experience as if it was had been a prison sentence.
Monica Maurice’s red wedding dress, 1938. Victoria & Albert Museum
So, for me, the most interesting outfits were those that were more idiosyncratic because they went some way to demonstrating the complex socio-cultural negotiations that take place around weddings. Take Monica Maurice, for instance. The first woman to become a member of the Association of Mining Electrical Engineers in 1938 and who decided to wear red for her wedding of the same year to celebrate her love of the colour. Or Elizabeth King, who had her dress made from furnishing fabric in 1941 as a way to circumvent clothing rations. More recently, imagine the moment when Christopher Breward and his partner James Brook wore suits for their civil partnership in 2006. I also enjoyed the dress worn by Lisa Butcher in 1992, whose literal baring caused her husband to pass judgment on the appropriacy of bridalwear at a wedding.
Suit worn by Christopher Breward in 2006 for his civil partnership with James Brook. Victoria & Albert Museum.
I thought the arrangement and presentation of the dress worn by Margaret Whigham in 1933 was excellent because it was possible to acknowledge the context more vividly with the inclusion of Pathe footage documenting the event. It also provided an early example of the way in which the white one off costume could be completely removed from fashionable dress, which in this case meant having a spectacularly huge train.
I appreciated those outfits where additional contextual information was present, which included photographs, accessories, design sketches and wedding invitations. It was fascinating to spot a napkin souvenir created by Maud Cecil for her wedding in 1927, drawing our attention to the inherent ephemerality of nuptial occasions. It was also interesting to note that there was very little jewelry on display despite the fact that this can often play an important role in nuptial ceremonies.
Wedding dress designed by Norman Hartnell and worn by Margaret Whigham in 1933. Victoria and Albert Museum
Yet, overall, I found that the chronological approach to this exhibition made for quite a dull experience. Much of the label descriptions were given over to aesthetic references with very little explanation, intimating an art historical approach to understanding objects where prior knowledge is assumed. I find this quite irritating because it not only makes information appear esoteric but it fails to engage the visitor in a more critical dialogue with the objects on view. Interestingly, the aim of Wedding Dresses 1775- 2014 is to demonstrate how fashion has impacted upon the design of wedding dresses from a historical perspective yet in doing so, the one off all white outfit becomes increasingly fetishlike as it moves further away from its various spatial and temporal locations.
I think the exhibition could have extended to asking more reflective questions around the roles and responsibilities of those involved in a wedding. For instance, what do a bride and groom actually do in a wedding? How and why? What other factors play a part in wedding practices? What impact might this have upon their choice of dress?
Ending on a more positive note, the accompanying exhibition blog is very informative because, through curatorial narrative, the nuances of wedding dress design and wear are given more space as the curators move in and out of people’s lives through the chosen objects, forcing them to consider their relationships in a more immediate way than in the actual exhibition. This is most vividly realized when the curators meet with the designer Gareth Pugh and Kate Shillingford, fashion editor of Another Magazine to discuss how she wore his dress on her wedding day. The curator observes how intimate the relationship is between the designer and the client in their negotiation of specific details. I wonder if the exhibition could have benefited from having observations like this or even recordings of those who wore the garments recounting their experiences included as an audio guide to accompany the visitor.
Alison Lurie (1981) The Language of Clothes London, Heinemann
Recently the subject of color in antiquity has found a voice and has received considerable attention in scholarship. The reconstruction of ancient monuments and material culture has been one aspect of this discussion. Studies of race and color in the ancient world have also been considered. The subject of color, however, may also be considered from a global viewpoint that addresses world historical approaches and the complex interconnections that exist in trade. Areas such as Mesopotamia, India, Africa, China and the New World may shed light on the subject of color and its importance in ancient times.
This is a call for papers to be published as a collected volume on the subject of Color in Ancient Global History (3000 B.C.- 600 A.D.).
Papers that address the following topics will be considered:
Color as a geographical marker or trope
The manufacture and manipulation of color
The global effect of color production (e.g. Silk Road studies)
Color-term studies in literature, particularly from religious texts
Color and the senses
Color and food
Color and textiles
The volume will consist of 12-15 essays to be published in the next two years.
Deadline: July 15, 2014
Please submit a 250 word abstract with your C.V. to Rachael Goldman via email at email@example.com.
Many thanks to all those who contributed comments to my last post on academic dress. The stories about the librarian who challenged her colleagues to reconsider their sartorial presentation in light of public perceptions or the art teachers preference for particular high street clothing stores were both funny and moving, I was also reminded of just how potent dress is as an intended and unintended signifier of our socio-cultural identity. In addition, I realised that we often fail to inquire further about our relationship with dress as part of a constant construction of everyday appearance.
A self-portrait by my mum, June 2014
This weekend, I had the important task of supporting my mum, an artist, with her open studio. This not only involved making sure she was fed and watered but it also meant I had time to chat to her about what she wears as a working artist. While I wasn’t surprised to hear that this involves bulk buys of shirts from the Gap for those frequent moments when paint was spilled or ink splattered, I wasn’t expecting to hear that when it came to dressing for exhibitions, my mum is concerned not to overshadow her work by her choice of clothes. In other words, my mum didn’t want to her clothes to get in the way of people looking at her paintings. In sartorial terms, this tends towards a lot of black across minimal, angular cuts of cloth that will probably sound familiar to anyone who has ever been to an art gallery private view. For my mum, the practice of her work is not a feature when it comes to the representation of that work beyond her studio.
Francis Bacon in his 7 Reece Mews Studio, 1974. Photo: Michael Holtz © Michael Holtz Estate. Via Francis Bacon Estate/Facebook.
This is in direct contrast with the way in which the painter Francis Bacon literally impregnated his clothes with the materiality of his studio in an effort to signify his practice beyond the confines of his studio. In London: After A Fashion, Alastair O’Neil describes how Bacon was remembered for bringing a dry cleaned suit back to the studio and laying it out on a table covered in paint and detritus from his work. When a friend moved the suit in an effort to retain its cleanliness, Bacon retrieved the suit only to put it straight back on to the table. O’Neil draws upon Bourdieu’s observation that artists dress in such a way as to divest their appearance of assumed values. In this case, Bacon asserted his artistic identity by inverting the prevailing significance of a suit as something to be protected and maintained.
Yet, as one of my favourite writers about dress, Elizabeth Wilson, points out, my mum’s choice to wear black is also an attempt to oppose the status quo, because we no longer wear it for mourning and so any attempt to wear this colour is instantly at odds with its earlier significance. It is perhaps this fact that has allowed black to be subversively adopted by social groups in an effort to draw attention to economic, political and cultural concerns.
Wilson also suggests that where one’s profession concerns artistic or intellectual pursuits, dress conformity will always be secondary and this might explain why the dress of both artists and academics are often overlooked. It is assumed that clothing just appears upon these people because it has to, not because it wants to be there. However, as the example of my mum and Bacon show here, the way in which artists dress is not a natural phenomenon born out of a disinterest in fashionable dress but rather a carefully ‘raised’ identity that serves to distinguish the artist from both the production and practice of their work.
Lastly, there are so many good exhibitions taking place in London this month that I am having a hard time deciding which one to review for my next post! If you want to hear about any in particular, please do let me know via the comments below. The choices are Wedding Dresses 1775 -2014 (V&A), The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014 (V&A), Return of the Rudeboy (Somerset House) or Made in Mexico: The Rebozo in Art, Culture and Fashion (Fashion & Textiles Museum). I aim to see them all but be nice to know if there’s a preference for the first review!
Alastair O’Neil London: After A Fashion 2007 Reacktion Books (p111)
 Elizabeth Wilson Adorned in Dreams 2003 RUP (p189)
I wanted to take this opportunity to acknowledge the recent passing away of Louise Wilson, the enigmatic course director of MA Fashion at Central Saint Martins. This ‘formidable’ professor was known for her passionate but sometimes challenging approach to teaching fashion, which I think is described best by Wilson herself in an interview on ShowStudio in 2012.
I strongly recommend listening to Wilson talk about her own educational experience studying fashion at Central Saint Martins, her views on the shifting political landscape of higher education and the value of studying as a transformative process which can often be a tough journey for both teachers and students. It was perhaps this last point that meant Wilson was able to push those she taught to find their own voice, as evidenced in an alumnus list that includes Roksanda Ilincic, Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan and Christopher Kane.
Still from ShowStudio interview with Wilson on 15 February 2012
Watching Wilson in the interview, I was struck by her uniform of black dress, her poise and the steadiness of her hands clasped together. Her choice of dress was, as Wilson explained in Vogue, a consideration of her scholarly identity as wearing black gave her the opportunity to avoid being singled out by others. Conversely, it seems that the decision to maintain a particular uniform also lent authority to her role as tutor/teacher, as well as her strong views on the purpose of education. This reflection upon the way in which dress can impact upon our role as teacher/educator resonated with a comment I heard at a recent workshop on learning development in higher education when the presented referred to the power of performativity in dress when engaging with students. Both make a valid point – clothing plays an important role in the negotiation of our various identities, which in this case is our scholarly one, and perhaps it is this recognition that contributed a small role in making Wilson such an inspiring tutor.
As someone who works across two universities, and who encounters both students and staff in a variety of contexts, I am in constant negotiation with clothing as a way to define both my roles and my responsibilities. For example, in one university, I am categorised as an academic member of staff who works within an art and design department so I have free rein over how I present myself sartorially. However, in the other institution, I belong to a senior professional services staff team who support students studying predominantly science and business subjects. The dress code is more formalised, or uniformed, and for me, the hardest to negotiate in terms of my own educational identity. Interestingly, there is often no formal dress policy within universities so these signs of uniformity are arguably individually and socially generated.
I am currently developing a research project into the dress of academic staff and would be very grateful for any reading suggestions, theoretical angles, everyday observations or possible volunteers.
As I have said in earlier posts, I prefer exhibitions that attempt to explore themes rather than present singular biographies of designers or makers. Why? Well, they invite us to step into lively debates within the study of fashion, dress, art and design by drawing upon a range of disciplines in an effort to discuss their interaction with our lived experience.
This is why I thoroughly enjoyed Artists Textiles: Picasso to Warhol at the Fashion and Textiles Museum in Bermondsey, London, which comes to a close next week. Curated by Geoff Rayner and Richard Chamberlain, it seems that the exhibition is a three-dimensional realization of their book Artists Textiles 1940 – 1976, published in 2012 and co-written with Annamarie Stapleton.
Published in 2012, this is also the exhibition catalogue
The intention is to chart, chronologically, the way in which modern artists in the second half of the 20th century engaged with ordinary people in Britain and America through the medium of textile and the production of cheaply printed fabrics. The emphasis is on the efforts of various entrepreneurs, companies and collectives to bring the desirability of modern art to the attention of a wider, increasingly affluent populace by establishing working relationships with iconic artists such as Picasso and Warhol.
The Fashion and Textiles Museum (FTM) opened in 2003, situated in a bright orange and pink building just south of London Bridge designed by the Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta and commissioned by the fashion designer Zandra Rhodes. It was Rhodes’ intention that the museum would house her own collection of garments, herself (at the top of the building) and her printing studio. However, in 2007, the museum was taken over by Newham College while Rhodes kept the apartment and the studio which now also holds her archive of prints since the 1960s.
A view of the main room that includes the second higher level in the background
The museum is small, split over two levels, with only one entrance/exit which forces the visitor to double back in order to leave the exhibition. Often, with larger exhibitions at places such as the V&A, the visitor is required to follow a route that starts at one place and finishes at another. It’s almost impossible to go back to look at something again. A visit to the FTM is refreshing because the visitor can move around the exhibits as they want, taking more or less time to study displays. Upstairs, there is a generous educational space that often exhibits contemporary workings of fashion and textile design. While I was there, I saw the current work of Sarah Campbell through a display of mood boards and videoed interviews.
A display from the first room ‘Curtain Up’, showing a range of printed designs from 1910 – 1939
Artists Textiles features 200 pieces arranged over eleven displays that focus on activities in Britain and America from the 1940s to the 1960s. Much ground is covered from Dali’s work with various textile companies in the 1950s and 1950s Horrockses fashions to Picasso’s collaboration with Fuller Fabrics and Warhol’s textile design work throughout the 1950s.
‘Harvest Time’ by Rockwell Kent, 1950
Interestingly, although the exhibition is an attempt to show how modern artists engaged with ordinary people through printed textiles, there is very little information on how this was experienced by the so called ordinary people. It is hard to get a sense of what it was like to purchase a roll of Warhol designed fabric or to own a set of curtains displaying a Kent print. As a result, the exhibition assumes the importance of modern art in people’s lives rather than assuming the importance of how ordinary people experience modern art. The objects on display reveals an intimacy between modern artists and manufacturing entrepreneurs, which is arguably at the expense of exploring the more complex relationship felt by consumers with their newly acquired textile art.
Feature on Fuller Fabrics collaboration with modern artists in Life magazine, November 1955
Reviews of the exhibition reiterate this assumption about the desirability of modern art, whether it be the emphasis on the entrepreneurial skills of textile producers like Zika Asher to persuade Matisse to mass produce his work or the way in which advertisements for fabrics designed by Picasso reminded consumers that his work was not to be sat on even if it was available as a fabric.
Display showing textiles as both worn garments and isolated works of art
In contrast, a review by Fruzsina Bekefi on the Courtauld Institute of Art Documenting Fashion blog highlights the way in which the exhibition maintains the aura of the individual artist through the display of textiles as isolated works of art. Yet, textiles can allow someone to get even closer to works of art through the wearing of a skirt, the closing of a curtain or the wrapping of a scarf. This is only alluded to throughout the exhibition with the inclusion of mannequins featuring textile designs in the forms of finished garments but these were certainly silent women, whose narratives were not included within the general story of textiles as a didactic lesson in modern art appreciation. Nonetheless, as the Bekefi points out, the inclusion of clothes designed by emerging designers such as Claire McCardell do at least highlight the way dress was also becoming a vital medium by which people could interact with cultural and commercial interests.
‘Cypren’ by Josef Hoffman, 1910
My favourite display was the introduction entitled ‘Curtain Up’, which focuses on the period between 1910 and 1939 in an effort to establish a pretext for artists’ interest in using design as a way to share their work with a wider mass market. On a display is a rich range of printed textiles, from scarves to furnishing fabrics, by key modernist artist/designers such as Sonia Delaunay, Josef Hoffman, Ben Nicholson and Ruth Reeves. Although I have seen Reeves and Delaunay at the V&A, it was exiting to view more of their work close up. I was particularly moved by Hoffman’s silk scarf as I imagined it being worn and cared for over much social and cultural changes. Such a small beautiful object imbued with previous lived experience was now lying there like a rare, dead animal finally disembodied from its daily purpose.
Folly Cove Designers feature showing women learning how to design and make wood cuts for printing textiles
This first display featured examples from various artistic/design collectives, which for me were also the most intriguing. Here is where the role of the individual artist becomes superseded by the intention to work more closely with ordinary people in an effort to make art and design relevant to their daily lives. With this in mind, I found the inclusion of projects by the American co-operative Folly Cove Designers and the British Hammer Prints Limited fascinating because they attempted to address and challenge the debate on artistic endeavors and mass production in their design work.
Despite its more traditional art historical approach to textile design, Artists Textiles raises many more questions than it answers, which in my mind can only be a good thing when it comes to discussing fashion and dress within a dynamic critical context.
As you may have heard, April 24 marked the one year anniversary of the disaster at Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, when a factory complex collapsed, killing over 1,000 garment workers and injuring over 2,500. In remembrance of this tragic event, fashion industry leaders as well as interested parties outside the fashion world have dubbed April 24th Fashion Revolution Day, a day for consumers to take a moment and ask themselves “who made my clothes?” This effort is a call-to-action, encouraging people to be more aware of the human impact that clothing manufacturing has on the world and promoting the support of companies that produce clothing in an ethical way.
In honor of the mission behind Fashion Revolution Day, I would like to present two videos that have been created to inform the world about the conditions of garment workers in Bangladesh, and discussing the state of the industry in this country one year after the Rana Plaza disaster.
The Shirt On Your Back is an interactive documentary produced by the Guardian that provides insight into the experience of garment workers who worked in the Rana Plaza factory complex, working conditions, and economic factors that pertain to the manufacture of clothing. The documentary mixes video footage, graphics, and text, and puts a face to garment workers through powerful interviews.
Tears in the Fabric is a recently-released, 30 minute documentary and web platform produced by the organizations Rainbow Collective and Openvizor to raise awareness about the people effected by the Rana Plaza disaster. The film focuses on Razia, and her life following the factory collapse. The project aims to educate consumers on “the human cost of high street fashion.”
Bonus Video: An interview with American Apparel founder and CEO Dov Charney on ethical clothing manufacturing practices and his call-to-action for responsible consumerism.
Bonus Article: “Rana Plaza Factory Collapse Survivors Struggle One Year On”; BBC News tells the stories of four garment workers who were rescued from the collapsed factory, and reports how they are doing one year later.
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.