‘I watched Bake Off and couldn’t believe how upset people got,’ Chinelo says. ‘Now I totally understand. At one point I couldn’t even thread a needle, my hands were shaking so much.’
The statement above was made by Chinello, one of ten contestants taking part in a BBC television programme called The Great British Sewing Bee, currently on air here in the UK. This second series succeeds the first in both size and grandeur. While the first was set over four episodes and located in a Georgian building in the heart of Dalston, East London, this one contains eight episodes and places more contestants in a lofty but grander converted warehouse by the Thames, offering everyone panoramic views of the capital city at the front while at the back, there is an extensive, well stocked haberdashery at their disposal.
The Great British Sewing Bee invites the participants to take part in weekly sewing challenges, which finds them spending two days completing three tasks: make a basic pattern, customize a piece of ready made clothing and finally making their own pattern, which must fit to a live model. Their efforts are judged not by an audience vote but by two authoritative figures, who in this case are a Woman’s Institute sewing teacher with more than forty years of experience teaching and a director of a successful tailoring company located in Savile Row, London. A television host, whose fundamental role is to mediate between the novice participants and the expert judges on behalf of the viewer, also joins them.
Contestants on The Great British Sewing Bee, Series 2
Each week, the two judges decide which contestant must leave the competition, based upon their performance across the three set challenges. The most concise and in-depth review of the programme can be found in The Daily Telegraph, where Kate Bussman highlights how the nature of television production creates much tension for the contestants as they are constantly required to stop their sewing for ongoing sound bites, camera shots and set pieces.
For me, the most interesting contestant in The Great British Sewing Bee is Chinello, a twenty-six year old dressmaker who does not use paper patterns, having learnt to cut forms directly onto the cloth. Chinello’s approach to clothesmaking is riveting because she engages with fabric directly, choosing not to mediate the process with the use of representational tools such as paper patterns. Her process involves thinking and working with design in a very three-dimensional way; Chinello is like a living, breathing 3D printer.
The setting for the series is an old Thameside warehouse, seen here in the background while Chinello, one of the contestants, is cutting out her pattern in the foreground.
Another fascinating part of the programme is the way in which the historical context and social commentary about dress is approached. Every week there is a theme explored, which might be a particular era or the type of material being used in the sewing challenges, such as stretchy fabric or patterned textiles. The television host then engages with a range of scholars and academics to discuss interesting aspects of that weekly theme. This part is fascinating because they draw upon a range of scholarly disciplines, from anthropology to consumption studies to performance and fashion, in an effort to contextualise the weekly challenges set for the contestants.
Prof. Giorgio Riello, Textile Historian, who discusses the advent of chintz and printed cottons in the 18th century
The Great British Sewing Bee provides us with a contemporary snapshot of academic interest in fashion, dress and textile studies. Craik’s (2009:264) identification of five types of fashion writing – language of fashion, fashion reportage, promotional writing, critical writing and intellectual analysis – makes no mention of the representation of these studies within the media of television yet it seems that in this one programme, there is visual evidence of all types of fashion writing taking place.
My interest in fashion and dress television programmes, particularly with a focus on historical context and cultural commentary, has its roots in a childhood spent avidly watching The Clothes Show
each week. The Clothes Show was this unique mix of contemporary affairs and intellectual discussion about fashion and dress
but whose content has now been taken over by the internet or reality television programmes that concentrate on how to improve the individual identities of ordinary people through fashion and dress. These would include Trinny and Susannah’s What Not to Wear, How to Look 10 Years Younger or Gok Wan’s How to Look Naked, to name but a few of a growing genre focused upon the daily anxiety of colloquial dress.
While the Great British Sewing Bee has a lineage that certainly relates it to reality television programmes (its sister production is The Great British Bake Off), it does go some way to filling the gap left by the likes of The Clothes Show with its efforts to discuss and inform the viewer about the wider scholarly interest in fashion and dress. In future, it could be part of a small archive of British television programmes that focus on fashion and dress history, perhaps beginning with Doris Langley-Moore’s What We Wore in 1957. I would be very grateful to hear of reading suggestions on the subject of historical dress and its representation through the medium of television. With the increasing complexity of internet coverage, it seems there is still a place for television to capture our attention with contextual discussion of dress and fashion for longer than just a brief click. Research into how this is done, with particular reference to the second half of the 20th century, is definitely worth further consideration.
Ok so this is a bit of a frivolous post, but I have a nagging question for readers that I don’t think I’ve asked before (If I have my apologies):
I have a handful of Disney “It’s a Small World” items that I adore, and recently put in my daughter’s bedroom as part of an international theme. However, there is one boy magnet I purchased in 2002 and in all that time I’ve never been able settle on where he is supposed to be representing. I’ve got my guesses, but I’m curious of your thoughts.
Certainly some global fashion expert can identify the details?
I know they recently came out with a TV show and are updating the ride, however I cannot seem to get the info from those websites either.
Yes…I’ve spent too much time on this! I guess that’s a born fashion researcher right?!
This week, I am taking a break from the UK, having just returned from Finland, where I had the pleasure of staying in Fiskars, a small village whose claim to fame is being the original location for the country’s largest metalware brand. Fiskars is internationally known for their ergonomic orange scissors, which anyone who has ever dabbled in dressmaking or taken up fashion design as a more serious pursuit will be familiar with as an iconic tool of the trade.
With cloth and pattern in mind, I made the journey into Helsinki to the national Design Museum to see an exhibition about the menswear designer Henrik Vibskov. I went with an Icelandic product designer who was very enthusiastic about Vibskov, and to whom I had to admit I had never heard of him before. I became vividly aware of how little I knew about Danish contemporary dress, let alone Scandinavian fashion.
On my return home, I skimmed Berg’s Companion to Fashion for some kind of further reference but found nothing. Yet, perhaps that was part of the problem. What was I looking for? A nice summarized discussion on the identity of Scandinavian fashion that would explain the cultural identities of several quite distinct geographical locations? Well, yes, sort of. Searching on this site, I was pleased to find Arianna’s review of Fashion Scandinavia and to discover Vibskov is one of several Scandinavian fashion designers recognized within a wider international discourse on the subject. This was certainly reiterated within the exhibition by a huge graphic timeline of his career in the main room. It was also a canny opportunity to showcase the museum’s new visual identity including font and logo designed by the Finnish branding agency Bond. However, the question of fashion design as an aspect of a national identify played only a small part in the overall exhibition as it was dedicated more to an exposition of the range of outputs produced by Vibskov since he graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2001.
Vibskov is presented in this exhibition as a designer and an artist, a creative individual, credible in both worlds. In some ways, he is perfect for a museum to exhibit because his work crosses such diverse mediums from sound and film to clothes and sculptures. His ability to cross disciplines is recognized in a list of accolades that include both distinguished art and design prizes.
A small exhibition, it is loosely arranged chronologically, although the fit between sculpture and space seems to take precedent over the organisation of the artifacts. However, as the exhibition is accessed from two sides, it is possible to start with the now and work your way back or start with the past and work your way here. Therefore, each room appears to stand alone as well as playing a role in an overarching biographical narrative.
There is a strong tactile quality to Vibskov’s work, whether it be in his use of inflatable shapes, foam props or textile creations, and I was especially drawn to his graphic knitwear, frenetic prints and the Fringe project from 2000/2001. There is no doubt that his sartorial designs are beautiful and humorous, also wearable, which I thought was well reflected in the decision to display them on coathangers and not mannequins. However, having watched some of his shows, which often involve lots of motion and theatrical techniques, the absence of a kinesthetic connection with the clothing was noticeable throughout the exhibition.
Nonetheless, in one room, I was drawn to a men’s jacket from his The Stiff Neck Chamber Autumn/Winter 2013 collection that featured a retro flamingo print. Hung up next to the other garments, it could have been mistaken for a pair of kitsch pyjamas. Overlaying the fabric were black strips that externalized interior seams.
A striking piece, I was then quite excited to discover another room dedicated to the display of an installation for the same collection. Featuring black birds that were similar in form to flamingoes, they were hung from the ceiling to create a forest of birds. Vibskov explained that for the show, the birds were laid on the floor appearing as upside down kites, before being hoisted up where their very long necks created material lines through which one could walk in and out. It was lovely to find myself seeing the installation within which the garments had been shown originally. So then imagine my joy when, in the final room, I noticed a photograph from the show placing all three aspects together!
However, this interest in conjoining garments with show sets, immersing the visitor into a more embodied experience of Vibskov’s world was not often reflected in the curation of the exhibition, with emphasis placed on displaying his outputs in isolation so it felt more like an art exhibition than one focused on exploring the design process. I often think this is a missed opportunity whereby the different aspects of how clothing is made, worn and represented can come together for the viewer to better understand what is arguably a intricate design process.
The curator suggests that it is a celebration of creativity yet I think the exhibition is more a celebration of a recognised creative as there is little said about the process of creativity or the business of fashion. This exhibition seems to be a logical step after Vibskov’s art exhibition in Paris last year and a monograph published by Gestalten in 2012 in establishing the designer as a key signifier of Scandinavian fashion design. There is just one glimpse of the design process, where the visitor is invited to gaze upon Vibskov’s sketchbooks, samples of printed textile designs and collected ephemera that demonstrate his work in process. This is perhaps only matched by a film in another room that documents the setting up of a show in Copenhagen, where Vibskov makes explicit his intentions for his visual style.
I find exhibitions about fashion designers slightly problematic, particularly when they are located in design museums. I noticed this when visiting the Hussein Chalayan exhibition at the Design Museum in London in 2009. Although it was a fantastic opportunity to see contemporary fashion on display, the decision to present his work as art rather than design meant there was no discussion of Chalayan’s collaboration with Puma nor Marks & Spencer’s Autograph range. This surely limits how much we can understand the world of fashion as a complex place where design and art are arguably blurred activities, influenced by social, cultural and economic factors. These exhibitions would benefit from reflecting upon the way in which particular designers understand fashion as art, design and/or craft in an effort to engage the visitor in these same debates.
To conclude, I think I agree with Valerie Cumming, who in her book Understanding Fashion History (2004) argues that exhibitions which emphasise one designer are challenging for anyone who is interested in the role of fashion in the 21st century because they provide little opportunity to compare or contrast their designer contemporaries. This is often a frustration I have with these exhibitions because they choose to celebrate the work through the lens of designer as original artist. There is rarely a critical perspective by which to assess the work and its impact beyond the assumed status of creative celebrity. Cumming also makes the point that when considering whether fashion is art, it is difficult to assess when academic scholarship of male dress is generally absent from the debate. The exhibition of Vibskov’s work certainly attempted to address that imbalance yet, overall, I felt disappointed with a curatorial decision to approach the subject in such a singular fashion.
Our colleague Francesca from Fashion Projects graciously took some time to profile my book Punk Style. We talked about the study and the inspirations.
Thank you to FP for the nice post!
Check it out here.
The Association of Dress Historians invites proposals for papers for its summer conference entitled The Legality of Dress: Historical and Modern Approaches to the Control of Clothing and Textile Production, held July 12, 2014 in London, England. Contributions from a historical or contemporary perspective from anthropologists, legal practitioners, historians, art & dress historians, military historians, curators, designers, makers and manufacturers will be welcome. It is hoped that an interdisciplinary, trans-historical approach will enrich discussion, provide insights and contribute to the evolution of the discipline of Dress History. Papers, to be illustrated with a Powerpoint presentation, should be twenty minutes in length.
- Historical/philosophical attitudes to the control of clothing
- Dress regulations that have shaped or challenged identities (personal, national, professional, gender, etc.)
- Aspects of historical sumptuary laws
- The dress of justice and education: regulations for lawyers & academics
- Diplomatic and official dress
- Rules & regulation for civilians at regal courts
- The regulation of dress for orphanages, hospitals, factories & prisons
- Legal dress regulations in the military
- Manufacturers, designers & legislation for copyright & patents
- Law, dress & gender past & present
- Fashion house licensing: designers, authorship and copyright
Deadline for abstracts: February 28, 2014
Abstract length: appx. 300 words
Submissions should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For further information see the events/conference webpage at: www.dresshistorians.co.uk
We’ve written about Anita Berber before here on Worn Through, the “priestess of depravity,” dancer, actress and muse to many during her years in Weimar Berlin. The contemporary images of Berber speak volumes, and viewing the highly-sexualized, sometimes fetishist styling she has inspired in today’s designer’s and photographers demonstrates her lasting ability to shock her audience through art. In this post on Anarchist Muses, we present Anita Berber as a representative of the overt (and ambiguous) sexuality adopted and celebrated in modern fashion.
View previous posts on Anita Berber here and here.
Images contain nudity.
By Otto Dix, 1925 Cate Blanchett for AnOther, F/W 2013
By Madame D’Ora, 1922 Vogue Germany, February 2014
By Madame D’Ora, 1921 Zac Posen RTW Autumn 2008
Berber and Sebastian Droste, 1922 Vogue Germany, October 2009
Berber with her monocle Pam Hogg F/W 2013
Today, we have two CFPs to share with you! Note the quickly approaching due dates for submissions.
First up: Dressing for the Occasion. This fall, the Costume Society of America’s Midwest Region will be hosting its annual symposium September 26-27 in Minneapolis-Saint Paul; this year’s theme is “Dressing for the Occasion.” Worn Through editor, Monica Sklar, will be in attendance – be sure to say hello!
“Occasion” is a particular time, especially when something happens that involves thinking about how to dress–such as seasonal changes and special events. Come to the CSA Regional meeting, September 26 and 27, 2014, in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Minnesota to learn about “Dressing for the Occasion.”
Autumn is a spectacular season in Minnesota—along the majestic Mississippi River leaves begin turning vibrant color, squirrels make ready for the coming winter, and CSA members will enjoy the opportunity to tour costume collections, the many theaters and the enticing extras that make Minneapolis-Saint Paul such a vibrant community. Did you know that Minneapolis is home to the iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture, the Mall of America, Target Headquarters, the American Craft Council—and that many artists actively design and live in warehouse lofts in both Minneapolis and Saint Paul?
Special conference tours will include the Goldstein Museum of Design’s Historic Costume Collection, the Guthrie Costume Shop, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Textile Center, and the Minnesota History Center. During your visit, attend one of the many repertoire theaters, including the famous Guthrie Theater or MN History Theater.
Deadline for Abstracts: March 1, 2014.
Send to: email@example.com
Abstracts of 250 words; send cover page separately with presenter and contact information and preference for presentation or poster.
Next: Luxury Retail Operations and Supply Chain Management
Philadelphia University’s Kanbar College of Design, Engineering and Commerce is pleased to sponsor the Third International Workshop on Luxury Retail Operations and Supply Chain Management to be held April 14 and 15, 2014 at Philadelphia University.
The luxury goods category is significantly outpacing other consumer goods categories. With greater emphasis placed on globalization, the challenge is to determine what consumers are seeking and what they value, when it comes to luxury.
The United States of America is the number one luxury market in the world. Philadelphia, historically known as the Workshop of the World, and home to Philadelphia University, the first school of textiles in America, is the ideal location for presenting research and discussing issues of craftsmanship, creativity and branding of the luxury artisan.
Authors are invited to present abstracts related to, but not limited to, different luxury areas such as:
- Perceptions of luxury in the 21st C;
- Artisan/ craftsmanship & Savoir Faire of luxury goods;
- Heritage, lineage and product curation;
- Manufacturing strategies & practices of luxury companies;
- Collaboration & integration among designers, manufacturers and distributors of luxury goods;
- Supply chain & distribution;
- Retailing (in situ & online) of luxury businesses;
- Marketing & branding narrative of luxury products;
- Legal issues surrounding the luxury world in the 21st C;
- Luxury business models;
- Emerging market economies for luxury goods;
- Sustainability & slow fashion in today’s luxury world;
- Media/social media’s role in luxury fashion.
Abstracts of 250-350 words.
Authors must supply a structured abstract set out under the following sub-headings:
- Originality/value (mandatory)
Please provide up to 10 keywords which encapsulate the principal topics of the paper.
Deadline for abstracts: February 21, 2014
Send to LuxuryWorkshop2014@PhilaU.edu
Full papers are also welcome, not required.
*Authors with best papers will be invited to submit a full version for publication in a special issue Luxury in the International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management.
Since I was able to afford to buy my own clothes, I have been a committed fan of charity shops, or chazza shops as they are also known here in the UK. It was not just because they were cheap, and it felt like the best thing to have bought several outfits for twenty pounds. It was also, and continues to be, a complete thrill to find garments that came with an incomplete story, where I could then attempt to fill in the gaps like identifying particular labels, certain cuts or different fabrics. I have always been fascinated by the way in which charity shops try so hard to exorcise donations of their previous owners and yet it is this connection with the past that makes them such highly prized items of consumption. I was over the moon when Second-hand Cultures by Nicky Gregson and Louise Crewe was published in 2003 because here was a text that was putting my sense of joy and intellectual curiosity about charity shops into a valid academic context.
Yet, more than being able to piece together a puzzle, I could also add to their sartorial tales. Even now, I can locate a piece of clothing by where I bought it and what I was doing at the time so, in this way, my wardrobe is a museum of me. I can continually experience my own social, cultural and economic history through what I wear. My clothes tell the story of not just British charity shops but also of places such as Montreal’s Value Villages, Berlin’s Humana department store or the huge Salvation Army warehouse on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
Humana store, Berlin
I grew up in the throes of charity shop expansion across Britain, where we now have around 5,000 across the country representing a myriad of charitable organisations. Having set up the first charity shop in 1949 and with the lion’s share of shops, ‘Oxfam’ became a firm colloquial expression for any charity shop one might visit or donate to on a British high street. By the 1980s, these unique institutions were busy professionalising their interiors with co-ordinated fixtures and staff training for volunteers. However, this could be seen as slightly ironic, given that charity shops are not legally ‘shops’ but rather sites for the exchange of gifts, which means they benefit from large tax exemptions, unlike ordinary retailers.
A typical Oxfam shop in Britain
Since the 2000s, charity shops have been criticised for their role in a very profitable but under scrutinised global economy of textile redistribution, where charities deal in overseas markets via private brokers. A great book that explains this complex relationship between your local charity shop and a distant market in an African country is Karen Tranberg Hansen’s Saluala: The World of Secondhand Clothing and Zambia, which I recommend for anyone interested in this subject.
Salaula – secondhand market in Zambia
Interestingly, knowing this has not yet stopped me from visiting charity shops. In fact, this only makes me more enthusiastic to engage with these places, perhaps because shopping there does go some way to reducing what is brokered elsewhere. Most charity shops can only sell 20 percent of donations given, which means they are under incredible pressure to redistribute waste within an already small second-hand cycle of goods. This is why I particularly like TRAID (Textile Recycling for Aid and International Development), a small group of charity shops based only in London and Brighton. Their aim is to be a shop for, not of, textile recycling, where clothes on sale are often reworked donations by employed designers using donations. What is exciting about TRAID as a charity shop experience is that they have sales where everything is two pounds, something that is very uncommon across nearly all other charity shops but arguably helps to reduce the quantity of unsaleable stock.
TRAID, recently opened in East London
Recently, another layer to these secondhand stories was made when I found myself in a local charity shop face to face with an old student who had recently taken on the role of assistant manager. My arms full of threaded possibilities, we discussed how the shop had streamlined its layout, with clothing arranged by colour, not just size or type.
In my experience, these peculiar retailers have always oscillated between the jumble sale and the department store as retail models of spatial organisation. This is because their design arguably evokes ideas and values held about the notion of charity. A charity shop presents a complex location where ethical imperatives bash against monetary gains. Not just a site of interaction between customer and retailer, the charity shop often involves three parties: the volunteers who make hands on decisions about what to sell and not to sell, the potential customer who will bring in funds and finally, but perhaps most importantly, the donors whom have certain expectations about what happens to their ‘gifts’.
Co-ordinated display of clothes
Donors can prefer to observe charity shops as places with little organisation, similar in form to a jumble sale, because it suggests that their philanthropic input is much needed. However, from a consumer perspective, a department store layout is more conducive to someone who may have little desire to shop there or is unsure of what to look for. It is often the aim of the charitable organisation to appear just as professional as for-profit retailers on the same high street, both as a way to remain competitive and to prove their worth to the customer. It is not unusual to find a customer asking for a discount in a charity shop, as happened while I was chatting to my old student. The move away from the jumble look is also a move away from haggling and discounts, all of which is possible when the goods on sale are essentially gifts.
The jumble sale approach
Yet, there is another consumer, who prefers the messier approach as it provides he/she with the opportunity to ‘find’ something of value, rather than being told what it is through various visual arrangements. These are often the more middle-class sort, who see themselves as amateur connoisseurs and deplore those who try to take that away from them. Admittedly, as the conversation came to an end between myself and my student about the new changes to the shop, it was clear I had become that middle-class sort. While I was bemoaning what I saw as negative change, my student was praising it as positive innovation. My student, in her new role as manager, saw the visual opportunities associated with the re-organisation whereas I felt slightly cheated out of personal opportunities to ‘discover’ valuable goods!
On final reflection, I think charity shops are intriguing places, where all sorts of expectations and assumptions are thrown up in the air. Part of the wonder is their attempt to catch and put these down into some kind of order. I would really like to explore this topic further, especially with the idea of charity shop as cultural metaphor or how they can act as spaces for memory making. If anyone is already doing this, or has any related thoughts about their experience of charity shops, please do get in touch.
This post was originally from July 2013.
This past Sunday, the New York Times Magazine featured photographs of objects left behind by South American immigrants crossing the border into America. Jason De Léon directs the “Undocumented Migration Project,” which collects, catalogues, photographs, and exhibits these “things they carried” and oral histories as witness to the experience, which De Léon describes as violent and traumatizing, comparing it to the forced migration of Africans earlier in the history of the United States.
The photographs featured in the Times are a mix of those taken by collaborator Richard Barnes in situ, and of objects exhibited out of context, en masse at the University of Michigan (where De Léon is an Assistant Professor in Anthropology). Combining video, photographs, and found objects, “The State of Exception” was the first exhibition of the UMP’s years of work. Whether in the “wild” or arranged in a blank museum space, the massive accumulation of objects (clothing, backpacks, shoes) highlights the personal, human side of this experience and obviates the scale of northern migration.
This method may not be moving to all, as this anthropological study uses material culture to expose and explore a very controversial topic. But a well-worn axiom of our field is that clothing is common to the human experience, and children’s dirty, abandoned backpacks featuring Dora the Explorer and other cartoon characters tug at the heartstrings. De Léon notes that within a day’s walk of the border, he finds mostly water bottles and other objects we generally think of as disposable, impersonal. Would exhibited photographs of those be as moving? Or might they look like a bunch of trash (perhaps further stigmatizing those left them)? What is different about clothes, shoes, backpacks? Where do Bibles and pictures of one’s family fall on this scale?
Although a comparison of the two experiences is inappropriate, these photographs reminded me of the documentation of victims in the Holocaust Museum. The infamous pile of shoes, ironically, serves not to put a face to the vast, unimaginable suffering, but rather to show how anonymous people can become.
- Photograph by Richard Barnes, part of the exhibition “State of Exception,” published in the New York Times Magazine July 21, 2013.
What is it about a pile? De Léon encounters piles of all kinds of things when he began his anthropological study, and in interviews often mentions the “worn-out shoes” he finds–especially the tiny ones. As an anthropologist, De Léon sees his job as making these anonymous objects personal, in order to understand the migrating people individually, as a group, and also to expose some realities of the experience to those who may see the immigration issue abstractly. The Smithsonian plans to accession these objects collected by the UMP in the summer of 2014.
What do piles or masses of objects communicate to the visitor in a museum setting? Are real, tangible (but untouchable) objects in a museum building more moving than photographs of the objects where they were found? Or vice versa? Is this a manipulative practice, or a realistic one? Have you seen this exhibition, or have you been to other exhibitions using large volumes of material culture that have stuck with you (for better or worse)?
Please leave your comments below!
Photo Credit: Richard Barnes for the NYT, 2013.
Although I want to focus upon local and regional dress collections across the UK within my new role as a Worn Through contributor, there can be no doubt that I am from London and greatly appreciate all that my hometown has to offer. So, for my second post, I thought I would return to my dress/design history roots with a visit to the Pearls exhibition at the V&A Museum.
My schooling in design history and theory began at the V&A, where I completed an MA History of Design in conjunction with the Royal College of Art. It was such a rich experience, to be taught by researchers and curators active in the museum while spending almost every day in the presence of its never ending collections. I know it may sound cliched when I say that I never stop discovering new things on a visit to the V&A but it really is worth saying. In other words, the V&A is never dull and its broad, varied sweep of curatorial decisions means there is always some display or exhibition worth further discussion and debate.
That is perhaps why I chose to visit Pearls, an exhibition organised in partnership with the Qatar Museum Authority, and which closed to the public a week ago. Jewellery and bodily adornment does interest me, as an aspect of dress and identity, and I have spend several years engaging with student jewellers and silversmiths about the focus and value of their work. However, I tend to approach the subject through the prism of critical design rather than from the magnifying glass of a collector. So, when faced with an exhibition that aims to celebrate one form of jewellery, I needed some convincing. How would I engage with Pearls if I wasn’t already a fan of this curious natural phenomenon? As I entered the exhibition, I admit, my mind was atuned to a slightly cynical attitude. It was with some relief that I then found myself completely immersed in the fascinating, but also disturbing, story of an inherently precious hard, spherical mass.
There are four sections to the exhibition and for me, the most satisfying were the first and the last, both of which explored what a pearl is, how it is produced and its eventual redesign in an effort to make it a cheaper commodity. The middle sections were dedicated to displays of jewellery that show the pearl’s recurring importance throughout Western history as a symbol of authority, wealth, glamour and prestige. This was reiterated by the use of old 19th and early 20th century safes as display cases.
There were definitely some fascinating pieces to be seen here, such as a pearl drop earring worn by Charles I at his execution in 1649, the Renaissance portrait of a pregnant woman wearing row upon row of pearls or the pieces by Reinhold Vasters, a master jewellery forger. Yet, overall, these sections probably hold more appeal for the visitor who likes to look at shiny, dazzling objects in a setting that smells faintly of a commercial showroom. It is no surprise that the Evening Standard lauded this section, suggesting that it is where the ‘death, sex and jewels’ approach to exhibition planning, as described by Valerie Cummings in her text Understanding Fashion History has taken precedence over a more critical approach to the design, production and consumption of pearls in various societies and times.
Saying that, the first section of the exhibition is gripping as the story of a pearl’s creation reveals its true state as an accident of natural causes. Crudely put, pearls are the result of fish or shellfish excrement (which contains a tapeworm) becoming trapped in a mollusc such as an oyster or mussel, which then tries to deal with the alien body by growing nacre (mother of pearl) over it. After a couple of years, a cyst is formed and there you have your glamorous pearl. As these trapped tapeworms are rare, to find a single natural pearl is the equivalent of opening 2,000 oyster shells. I was quite surprised by this as in my research on jewellery, fashion and ethics, I had not found any discussion on the degree of waste produced through pearl farming. This was further compounded by the last section which focused upon the emergence of the cultured pearl. The farming of natural pearls eventually diminished stocks in the Persian Gulf meanwhile the wave of modernity washed over the 20th century and Kokichi Mikimoto succeeded in cultivating fresh water pearls in an innovative feat of genetic engineering. As Beatrix Chadour-Sampson, co-curator of the exhibition explains, pearls are born, not made. The difference now is that where before they were born in situ, they are now completely test-tubed, leading to a growing Chinese mass market where everyone can adopt a pearl baby.
Display of mass produced pearls at the end of the exhibition
A film of Japanese women in the mid 1930s grafting small pieces of nacre onto freshwater mussels alongside haunting photographs of Chinese urban landscapes transfigured (or transformed) by pearl cultivation were nothing short of captivating. To see the technical production of cultured pearls and its impact on contemporary China and the historical Persian Gulf raised questions about how these rather ugly, biological rarities had managed to persuade us otherwise – I mean, if Roman women were obsessed with pearl earrings, why was that the case? Who were the buyers and traders that created such interest in what seems to me to be such an inherently obsolescent enterprise, founded upon a very narrow hierarchy of labor and capital? It still takes around two years to cultivate a pearl and yet Mikimoto, as well as most of what China produces, only keep 5-10% of what they produce to maintain perceived levels of quality.
Pearl divers in the Persian Gulf circa 1970s
Mark Hudson, reviewing the exhibition in the Daily Telegraph, suggests that one needs to be a particular sort of woman to wear and ‘get’ pearls. In other words, you either have it or you don’t. This probably makes more sense if you categorise jewellery and those who wear it according to modernist tastes, whereby you put bling in opposition to pearls and you see most jewellery as a highly femininised enterprise, where its stereotypical aim is to beautify the world. However, why are we assuming all women acknowledge the pearl’s high value? I don’t get what the fuss is about because I find it difficult to take their status for granted. The assumed emphasis on pearls and feminine identity seemed a missed opportunity for the exhibition to explore the way in which jewellery and adornment challenges gender roles and expectations. It would have been interesting to know whether today’s jewellery makers/wearers see it that way too? Although the exhibition does feature contemporary pieces by makers such as Nora Fok and Frederick Baker, they are not invited to comment on how they understand this curious material beyond just its assumed prestige and glamour.
Chest belonging to a pearl dealer
The Pearls exhibition is no doubt a promotion for the upcoming Pearl Museum in Qatar which, according to the Daily Telegraph, will feature most of a collection owned by Hussain Alfardan, known as the dealer in the Qatari pearl industry, and whose portrait is prominently display in the exhibition next to artifacts associated with pearl trading: scales, conversion tables and sieves. Much has been said in the British popular media about how this particular exhibition highlights the way in which Qatar wants to buy back their cultural heritage – pearls were the most important Persian commodity before oil. Interestingly, while they may possess these objects physically, Qatar and its historical relationship with the trading of pearls or influence upon their popularity is little explored in this exhibition. Why? Perhaps because, like pearls, their authority on the subject is a priori assumed and, as the viewer, we require nothing more than that assurance of cultural capital. In the end, I left the exhibition convinced not of the pearl’s allure but of the way in which we fetishise objects and how insightful this process can be about ourselves in the material world.
Finally, I thought this exhibition could have incredible resonance with anyone studying fashion, ethics and sustainability. Questions concerning the concept of luxury, the role of provenance in ethical debates and alternative cycles of consumption all seem relevant to an interest in pearls. If you have a view on this or are in fact working on something related, I would love to hear from you.