On Teaching: 1960’s Revival

Today was an interesting day. I met an amazing woman who graduated from Central Saint Martin’s in London and is a practicing patternmaker. Now, that introduction may sound underwhelming to you. Many very talented and amazing people have graduated from Central Saint Martin’s. What was amazing was that she graduated in 1960. Sitting before me was a woman who lived her 20’s through the “swinging 60’s” in London and was showing off her portfolio full of her college work from when London was just breaking into the “youth revolution.”

1960 picture 1

Photo courtesy of Air Canada

Jackie* came to see me today to apply for a teaching position to pass on her decades of knowledge. Obviously, when she reached out, I was intrigued. After today, I was astounded by her story and the work she had done. Her portfolio was moving, her work samples were perfection and her technique was flawless. She demonstrated her approach to a group of my colleagues and one comment a fashion-skeptic provided was, “I have never been interested in fashion until just now. Thank you for teaching me something new and opening my eyes to a new side of your field! (Personal Communication, June 2015).”

Jackie’s portfolio showed fabric combinations and design details that were iconic examples of that time frame. The illustrations not only highlighted the new silhouettes of the time but also the accessorizing details in hair, shoes and, in some instances, jewelry. She talked about her time living in London, going to school for fashion, and how she entered the industry after she left school. The guest speakers she was able to listen to and meet are the content of dreams!

1960 picture 2

Photo courtesy of Byron’s Muse

This meeting comes just after my consideration of the London Costume Society’s call for papers discussing 1960’s fashion. I enjoy researching historical fashion. In fact, I completed an undergraduate thesis on historical fashion and completed a second bachelor’s in Art History with a focus on studying historical dress through fine art. The 1960’s was an intriguing time in fashion and London was the center of much of the fashion revolution. Think about Mary Quant and John Bates. They are considered by many as the creators of current staples in our wardrobes such as the mini skirt (Fashion, 2015; Garments, 2015)). This revisiting of previous fashion decades is familiar to the industry. This season, the 1970’s have crowded stores with bell-bottoms and “hippie” accessories (Trochu, 2015). Maybe next year we will travel another decade back to the 1960’s?

1960 picture 3

Photo courtesy of Vogue

Someone questioned my reasoning for bringing in a faculty candidate that was so “seasoned.” They were curious if she would be “current” enough to keep the student’s interest in the classroom. I will admit Jackie was not the most trendy, but her experience and passion were enough alone. Add a tendency for revival of past trends, such as 1960’s fashion, and I make my case. I think she is an invaluable resource to teach students how to approach patternmaking and fashion. Bringing her knowledge  and experience into a college classroom setting will be the true revival of the 1960’s.

Do you agree? Would you take a class from a true, 1960’s London “Youth Revolution” woman or would you think she was no longer relevant?

 

References:

Fashion in 1960’s London (2015). Retrieved from http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/f/1960s-fashion-london/ on July 29, 2015.

Garments worn by Marit Allen(2015). Retrieved from http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/g/garments-worn-by-marit-allen/ on July 29, 2015.

Trochu, Eugenie (February 03, 2015). Seventies Revival. Retrieved from http://en.vogue.fr/fashion/fashion-shopping/diaporama/shopping-trends-seventies-revival/18864 on July 29, 2015.

 

* Name change to protect identity.

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Parisian Insights: Jean Paul Gaultier

I have a terrible habit that is to always visit exhibitions during their final days…I mostly do so as I believe I will avoid the crowds of the beginnings…Well, this has proven to be a very bad idea quite a few times and I’ve once again been a victim of my very own wrong assumptions as I missed the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition that was held at the Grand Palais in Paris. I must admit I am very disappointed as I heard so many positive and enthusiastic reviews about a display that seemed to have perfectly combined wit, drama, technology and playfulness. I had thought I would nonetheless write about this exhibition, researching articles and questioning the people that had seen it but the point of our posts on Worn Through are mainly to speak from the heart and write about a personal experience so I thought it would be a little dishonest to do so.

However, what I can tell you about this exhibition is that it has been a huge success (that’s also why I missed it: because of work, I couldn’t allow myself to queue for three hours!). Initiated by the Musée des Beaux Arts of Montreal in 2011, the display has since travelled in numerous cities such as San Francisco, London or Madrid: surely lucky readers of Worn Through have managed to visit this exhibition.

Within the different reviews I have read I have been appalled by how some journalists still go on with that archaic debate that confronts entertainment (and thus popularity) and the intellectual (a conflict that often features a fashion exhibition). A journalist even believing that the Grand Palais programmed its Velasquez exhibition alongside the Jean Paul Gaultier display in purpose. The Velasquez show being the scholar exposition that would give profoundness to the institution despite a poor audience and Jean Paul Gaultier being the attractive ‘cash machine’. I have always refused to engage in such an unproductive debate…maybe because I am not only a fashion historian but also an art historian who finds as much pleasure in contemplating Velasquez’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary as in enjoying a sequined Jean-Paul Gaultier gown. So, without having seen the exhibition but secured by many of my friends’ impressions, I can affirm that its popularity and theatricality did absolutely not prevent the display from brilliant, original and informative. To learn with pleasure: isn’t it what we always seek for?

Here’s a video showing the exhibition’s behind-the-scenes with a lovely Nutcracker air and a fashion show-like atmosphere…because that’s what it’s all about: fantasy and glamour!

 

 

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Interns 2015-16

Hello intern applicants:

Don’t worry we didn’t forget about you.
I know the apps were due July 15 and we are continuing to review them and will have a decision this week.

Sorry for the delay. It’s been very busy on our end.
Looking forward to working with you.

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CFP: Dressing Global Bodies

Call for Papers: Dressing Global Bodies: Clothing, Cultures, Politics and Economies in Globalizing Eras, ca. 1600s-1900s

University of Alberta, Edmonton

Deadline for submissions:October 1, 2015

Acceptances of papers to be announced: December 1, 2015

Themes could include, but are not limited to:

  • Cross-cultural practices and patterns of dress and / or body adornment
  • Production and distribution of clothing
  • Gendered and ethnic shaping of dress practice
  • Fashion politics of dress in globalizing contexts
  • Circulation and re-use of dress and dress idioms
  • Design in globalized contexts
  • Representations of clothing cultures
  • Appropriation / acculturation of designs, materials, motifs
  • Dress in colonial / post-colonial contexts

Submission Requirements:

For individual speakers: a 200-word proposal and a one page CV

For full panels: a 200-word panel rationale, plus 200 word proposals for each panel participant along with an individual one page CV.

Themed panels with maximum three speakers are especially welcomed, but individuals papers are welcomed as well.

Send all submissions to: dgb.conference@ualberta.ca

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Domestic Affairs: Fashion Victims, Wedding Dresses, and Men in Heels

So it’s that time of my year when budgets are too low to travel to far off exhibitions and I don’t have the energy anyway, since I’m prepping for the classes I’ll be teaching for the Fall semester — and by prepping I mean enjoying pool time while it lasts. But I am getting some wonderful tips about exhibitions to plan my pre-teaching and other Fall trips around through both comments and emails from many of you!

One that I hope to get to for fun (and to review) in August is I Did — Wedding Finery Past: The Affirmations of Past Generations at the Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles in Berkeley, California. One of our readers told me about this one and as I am always up for a trip to Lacis, I clearly need to do a review while I’m at it.

I was also reminded of two exhibitions at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto that I mentioned a few weeks ago: Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels and, my personal favorite, Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century. Former Worn Through Contributor, Ingrid reminded me of these two exhibitions by email, and mentioned that she wrote about Fashion Victims for the Costume Society of America journal, Dress. And while a trip to Lacis is possible, Toronto is a bit of a stretch, so that article and the video below will have to suffice for now!

What exhibitions do you wish you could see? What exhibitions are you excited for this Fall? Feel free to share them in the comments below or to email me the details so I can include them in a future post!

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Kōrero Kākahu: Telling Tales

Kia ora! It is Māori Language Week/Te Wiki o te Reo Māori in New Zealand this week so it is fitting that the exhibition I am writing about this month is borne from the beautiful collision of Māori and European cultures. Tell Tails is on show at the Turnbull Gallery at the National Library until August 4th and features the work of three female artists who have drawn their inspiration from the collection of the National Library. The exhibition was created over two years as a collaborative and creative project between Jo Torr, Maureen Lander and Christine Hellyar. The trio have apparently know each other for many years, and this is no surprise as the synergy of the exhibition is apparent through the many ways in which their works echo back to one another. The show gets its name from the tails of kites that Māori used to fly to show them the way in which the wind was blowing – the figurative and literal wind, that is.

Guiding you into the exhibition space (which is very small), is a large woven manu aute (kite) made of willow, feathers string, muka (prepared flax that is worked until it can be woven into garments) and printed linen. The manu aute is a precursor for the pieces to come: the blending of Māori and colonial history that is reflected through the use of blended fabrics. Also outside the gallery is a coat, created in the style depicted in the portraits of Tuai and Titere from which Jo Torr drew inspiration. The back of the coat is embroidered with another manu aute, the image of which was taken from Titere’s letters. Again, there is a blending of fabrics (wool, linen and muka) to reinforce the ways in which cultures were blending. The letter from which the drawing comes, was written by Titere when he was visiting England in 1818. The two young men were enjoying the sights in London, visiting the zoo and attending high society balls, a far cry from their lives in New Zealand.

Moemoeā by Jo Torr

Moemoeā by Jo Torr. Photo by Matariki Williams

Though I liked the idea of having these two works (there was a third also) outside the gallery, I think the objects need to be able to stand alone and this can be done with great interpretation. If not, these objects can look out of place in what is (in this case anyway) a quiet reading room for the library. Furthermore, if the exhibition narrative is going to start outside, visitors shouldn’t have to go back to labels to make sense of the content as I had to with this exhibition.

Inside the gallery space, Christine Hellyar’s piece Cordage Cloud reiterates the theme of collaboration in the exhibition as she utilises flax that was given to her by Maureen Lander and Jo Torr. It also highlights the repetition of threes seen throughout: three artists, and the three woven strands of the plaits used within the piece.

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Cordage Cloud by Christine Hellyar. Photo by Matariki Williams.

My favourite pieces of the exhibition were those of Maureen Lander. Lander was taught to weave by the late master weaver Diggeress Te Kanawa and was the first Māori woman to gain a Doctorate in Fine Arts from a New Zealand university. The first piece of hers was the three hanging bonnets, these drew my attention as soon as I entered the room. An inspiring friend of mine first introduced me to thinking about how thoughts regarding bodies are constructed and manipulated through the display of objects. The suspension of the three bonnets, facing one another as if in conversation, their shadows stretching across the wall, all of them at head height, immediately brought this idea to mind: I could imagine the wearers. Instead of being mere objects, they had an element of embodiment attached to them. Reading about the inspiration for this work made me even more excited. Lander had chosen a watercolour by Joseph Merrett called The Warrior Chieftains of New Zealand, and when she carried out further research on the painting, she uncovered the story of Hariata Heke, a woman with a penchant for red who led 700 men into battle. Hariata would often fight wearing a tartan skirt, red jacket and blue bonnet adorned with red feathers.

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Hariata’s War Garb by Maureen Lander. Photo by Matariki Williams.

 The final piece I want to mention is also by Lander, a deconstructed cloak inspired by a red cloak that was exhibited at the British Museum in 1998 with no known provenance. A cloak which she had made for the Te Papa exhibition Kahu Ora has been taken apart and hung, as if it were a collection of newly created pieces drying before being made into a cloak. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this kind of process before wherein something is created for a specific purpose, then a mystery presents itself for solving, so this object is recalled to help solve the mystery through a process that completely unravels the original object, purpose and story. It is a brave and invigorating prospect!

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Hongi’s Red Cloak – Deconstructed by Maureen Lander. Photo by Matariki Williams

 

Detail of Hongi's Red Cloak - Deconstructed by Maureen Lander. Photo by Matariki Williams.

Detail of Hongi’s Red Cloak – Deconstructed by Maureen Lander. Photo by Matariki Williams.

What a great idea this exhibition is; letting artists feed off the nation’s largest art collection in such a visceral manner to produce new artworks should continue on. I hope this carries on in some way in the future.

A note on my column title: Kōrero Kākahu translates very literally from Māori to English as “talk of clothing” but can also be read as the stories gleaned from clothing or the stories that clothing holds. Future columns, particularly those that cover Māori content, may delve into this meaning a little deeper.

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Call for Nominations: TSA Fellows

New Program: Fellows of the Textile Society of America

Nominations Open May 1, 2015

Nominations Deadline Extended to August 15, 2015

Nominate

The Textile Society of America is instituting a new program to recognize and honor individuals who have over the course of their careers, made path-breaking contributions to the field, in textile scholarship, education, art, or in sustaining textile arts globally.

Through this program TSA aims to foster recognition and appreciation for those who have dedicated their lives and work to the study, creation and preservation of textiles, and in doing so have inspired colleagues and transformed the field.

All TSA members are invited and encouraged to nominate colleagues who merit the status of Fellow of the Textile Society of America. Fellows need not be nationals or residents of the United States or Canada, nor do they have to be TSA members. Each nomination must be supported by a substantial account of the nominee’s contributions, including a brief professional biography of the nominee, as well as listing of seminal publications, exhibitions, or history of work. Each submission must be endorsed by two additional TSA members.

TSA will announce its first Fellows in the fall of this year, 2015. Nominations will be reviewed and selected biennially, by a special TSA Board-appointed committee.

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You Should Be Reading: Kimonos

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts recently faced controversy over an event promoting La Japonaise, a 1876 Monet painting of his wife, Camille, wearing a kimono. The museum invited visitors to try on a kimono for a photo op in front of the painting. When snapshots from “Kimono Wednesdays” surfaced on social media, the MFA was swiftly accused of cultural insensitivity, appropriation, and racism. Of those protesting the event, several expressed disappointment in the lack of information provided to visitors, who wore the kimono without learning about the garment’s history or significance. While reactions to the event and the MFA’s attempts to deflect backlash have been the focus of media coverage, I want to take this opportunity to share several recent academic articles on kimonos. I also recommend the catalog for the Met’s recent kimono exhibition. I don’t think any fashion historians would argue that we always want to promote a deeper understanding and appreciation of costume. 

1. Francks, Penelope. (2015). Was Fashion a European Invention?: The Kimono and Economic Development in Japan. Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, 19(3), 331-62. 

It is still widely assumed that the emergence of fashion was a uniquely European phenomenon and that, conversely, non-Western clothing systems must have remained static and “traditional.” Hence, in the case of Japan, clothing modernity continues to be equated with the adoption of Western-style dress. This article presents evidence that, through the period of Japanese economic growth and industrialization from the eighteenth century to World War II, the kimono outfits that most women continued to wear were subject to a process of change that can only be understood as fashion. As a result, by the interwar period, kimono fashion had become a mass-market force that continued to influence the production and consumption of dress, even as, in the postwar period, most women switched to Western-style clothing. Fashion is thus not necessarily a European invention and can represent a significant economic force, even if it comes in distinctively non-European forms. – Full Article Abstract

2. Assmann, Stephanie. (2008). Between Tradition and Innovation: The Reinvention of the Kimono in Japanese Consumer Culture. Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, 12(3), 359-76.

The kimono plays a marginalized role in contemporary society, but continues to he worn on festive occasions. In this article I explore the role of the kimono from several angles. Based on participant observation and in-depth interviews with members of two organizations, I examine two diametrically opposed approaches towards the kimono in order to provide an insight on how differently it is being reinvented in Japanese society. I will identify four areas in which the kimono is being kept alive in Japan. First, I argue that the kimono is related to consumption. Not only does the purchase of the garment itself involve consumption, but the training of how to wear a kimono is also related to consumption of education and experience. Conventional approaches towards the kimono that emphasize manners and etiquette coexist with innovative approaches that experiment with age and gender boundaries. Secondly, mastering the art of the kimono can be interpreted as a form of cultural capital whereby the kimono fulfills a role in social distinction. Thirdly, I argue that wearing a kimono has become an expression of collective individualism that is often embedded in group activities. I conclude that the kimono has become a communicative symbol to convey an individual attitude towards societal conventions and national identity. – Full Article Abstract

3. Cliffe, Sheila. (2010). Revisioning the Kimono. Critical Studies in Fashion & Beauty, 1(2), 217-31.

Whilst the kimonoed woman is an unchanging stereotype of Japanese beauty, this article suggests that due to the interaction of kimono with the processes of globalization (technological and in terms of communication), the kimono continues to metamorphose to meet the needs of its fashionable, urban, contemporary wearers. – Full Article Abstract

Image credit: MFA.org

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This teacher talked about ethics – Part II

This May, I wrote about a discussion that emerged in class about unethical brand behaviour. (If you want to see part I of the article click here.)

The majority of the class seemed to demonstrate that it is indeed from a different generation with a different set of values than mine, stating that discrimination, racism, exclusion are things that brands can do and that this does not even matter. Brands are entitled to exclude whoever they like.

Well here is the update on this class. The students were asked to work in groups and invent a new ad campaign for the said brand which aims to improve its ethics. So, although the students argued that none of these issues matter to them, during project time, they had to deal with them in depth.

The results were the exact opposite of what they had loudly stated in class!

During their research phase they looked at various activists and ambassadors of being ‘real’ or being ‘different’.

An insiring personality for the students: Shaun Ross.

An inspiring personality for the students: Shaun Ross.

The six groups then each took a different approach: Some created a campaign to raise awareness of plus size customers, others used a hashtag social media campaign to include all races, sizes and ethnicities. And one group had the most daring approach: It wanted to use famous personalities with disabilities who would wear the clothes and turn the brand’s ethos upside-down.

Students took inspiratoin from a spoof ad by "The Militant Baker" during their research

Students took inspiratoin from a spoof ad by “The Militant Baker” during their research

 

It was amazing to watch the groups present their concepts. This amazement was not only because they did a good and well-researched presentation, but because I was amazed at their thoughts. After dealing with the topic in depth they actually changed their opinions. All of the sudden they saw a new perspective.
So perhaps the Generation Y is different, because it has the ability of changing, improving and grasping concepts which don’t come to them naturally at first.

Chantelle Winnie: Another inspiration for the students.

Chantelle Winnie: Another inspiration for the students.

Have you ever experienced a 180° change of opinion whilst teaching?

 

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Book Review: London Society Fashion

Heather Firbank photographed by Baron Adolph de Meyer, c.1909

Heather Firbank photographed by Baron Adolph de Meyer, c.1909, London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank, V&A Publishing, 2015

Reading and looking through London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank is like a prolonged glimpse into a rarefied closet of clothing, of the kind lost to us in our daily routine of contemporary dressing and undressing.  Three dress historians and curators who are intimately familiar with the context and particular histories of these extraordinary objects–Cassie Davies-Strodder, Jenny Lister, and Lou Taylor– guide us through this absorbing case study.  This foundational fashion collection remains highly relevant for the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).  Since the V&A acquired Heather Firbank’s collection of clothing from her lady’s maid and confidant, Adelaide Hallett, in 1957, at least one of her garments has been shown in all subsequent in-house permanent displays of fashion over the last 50 years. Over 30 years ago, V&A curator Valerie D. Mendes noted the immediate distinctiveness and consistency of the “simple uncluttered lines” (Rothstein, 2010: 80) of Ms. Firbank’s wardrobe. London Society Fashion illustrates Ms. Firbank’s understated style very well, and further aims to accomplish the reconciliation of her famous clothes with her personal story.  The date range of the study, 1905-1925, is tied not to curatorial preference but to Heather’s own personal life decisions–in 1926 she packed up her wardrobe to live a quiet life in Sussex, far removed from the social whirlwind that had thus far been her life experience.

Coupled with Heather Firbank’s archive, the clothing is illuminated by surviving letters (especially between herself and her well-known brother, novelist Ronald Firbank), photographic portraits, and an extensive trove of receipts and bills from the court dressmakers and most exclusive couturiers and shops in London during the first few decades of the twentieth century.  As there are no extant diaries of Heather Firbank’s, the experience of her relentless social schedule, wardrobe and behavior requirements, and shopping activities are supplemented by other diaries and recollections of the time, including descriptive passages from the novels or memoirs of Vita Sackville-West, Ronald Firbank, Cecil Beaton, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and Cynthia Asquith, the latter of whom was the same age as Ms. Firbank and was required to navigate the same complex and stifling terrain of rules and expectations set out for the young English debutante.

Heather Firbank in her court presentation dress and tiara, photographed by Lallie Charles, from The Onlooker, 23 May 1908 London Society Fashion, V&A Publishing, 2015

Heather Firbank in her court presentation dress and tiara, photographed by Lallie Charles, from The Onlooker, 23 May 1908.
London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank, V&A Publishing, 2015

A bill from Mascotte, 7 July 1915 London Society Fashion,, V&A Publishing, 2015

A bill from Mascotte, 7 July 1915
London Society Fashion , 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank, V&A Publishing, 2015

The authors are very clear from the outset that this is not “a broad brush historical survey” (p. 9), but rather concentrated on one woman’s tastes and life circumstances.  While I couldn’t help but wish to see comparisons between Ms. Firbank’s wardrobe and what other women in her social circles were wearing at the time (or even close-up details of her impeccably made clothing compared with the ready made or handmade pieces worn and bought by middle class women), I can understand the decision to tighten the lens on Ms. Firbank’s life and the dressmakers she favored to do honor to her particular story and to retain a reasonable focus.  There is only one instance of a photographic comparison with another contemporary’s wardrobe–Ms. Emilie Grigsby–in order to show the divergence between Ms. Grigsby’s vibrant and up-to-the-minute evening wear with Ms. Firbank’s sober and simple garments and the disappearance of evening clothes from her wardrobe as she retreated from society into increasing isolation.  This single outside example is very effective in underscoring the change in Heather’s life from a young debutante on the social scene to an unmarried woman with few if any marital prospects.

The life trajectory of Ms. Firbank is ultimately tragic, as her parents and all other siblings died before her (most significantly, the death of her father instigated the rapid loss of the family fortune and place in society as well).  As befits the time and her station, her financial and social well-being would have been tied to a husband, and she was unable or did not wish to consider other options.  In her papers the authors note there is no evidence that Heather was involved in the suffragette movement, nor evidence of involvement with her brother Ronald’s bohemian lifestyle and circle of friends, where she would have been free of the constraints of strict moral codes of behavior and mandatory life milestones such as marriage and producing an heir.  Despite this, Heather did enter into a short-lived, clandestine, and extremely risky affair with an older married man while in her 20s, and this experience seemed to have a lasting effect on her prospect or desire for having a long-lasting relationship.

As we have no access to Heather’s private thoughts through a diary, we will never know exactly why Heather chose not to marry or took enormous risks in having extramarital affairs. We also do not know why Heather continued to spend well beyond her means once she was placed on a strict allowance following her father’s death, continuing to rack up exorbitant bills at her favorite couturiers. Her mother and brother tried in vain to curb her spending, with several letters showing Ronald’s total exasperation with his sister, and her desperate replies for support and understanding. Was her behavior due to depression, holding onto a familiar routine, staving off boredom?  The authors speculate it was largely a love of fashion, fine clothing, and the activity of shopping and dressing well that she could not bring herself to jettison or temper.  In addition to her wardrobe, her collection of fashion-related clippings from newspapers and magazines, sometimes extensively annotated, attests to her passion for clothes and keeping up with the latest fashions.

Emerging from this complicated narrative one thing is clear–this is a woman who clearly enjoyed clothing and knew exactly what she wanted.  Heather amassed a collection of staggering size–over 400 pieces in a time span of 20 years–dictated by the proscribed daily activities and the number of ensembles needed for each–from tailor-mades to afternoon dresses to tea gowns to evening gowns to court gowns.  The V&A was not able to acquire the entire collection–less than half–and a few pieces do survive in other UK fashion collections (as well as some that have stayed with the family, including her “extravagant jewelled horse whip”(p. 62)!). While her style and public image may have been guided by social codes or through the influence of her mother and society tastemakers such as Lady Duff-Gordon (who worked under the label Lucile), her wardrobe is surprisingly consistent throughout the years; as styles change significantly from the 1910s into the 1920s, Heather’s preference for understated, elegant, and simple garments translates to the new mode.

Heather Firbank's dress by Lucile, 1912 A bill from Mascotte, 7 July 1915 London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank, V&A Publishing, 2015

Heather Firbank’s dress by Lucile, 1912
A bill from Mascotte, 7 July 1915
London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank, V&A Publishing, 2015

The authors do note subtle changes in her style that coincide with particular life circumstances, such as an increase in alluring, almost seductive gowns during her secret love affair.  Juvenile clothing gives way to more grown-up wear suitable for a young woman coming out in society. There are garments clearly dictated by the exclusive codes of aristocratic dress and exquisite court wear that adheres to very particular requirements, yet they all still carry Heather’s stamp (sometimes literally, with a sprig of heather motif embroidered with her distinctive signature on a pair of drawers).

A simply stunning and very modern-looking gown by Lucile, from London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank, V&A Publishing, 2015

A simply stunning and very modern-looking gown by Lucile, ca. 1912, from London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank, V&A Publishing, 2015

In the last chapter, the story switches gears–somewhat abruptly but certainly not unexpectedly–from the personal story of Heather Firbank to unearthing the history of the makers of Heather’s wardrobe, “the forgotten world of Edwardian dressmakers”, many of which have been lost to the pages of British fashion history and recent memory. While other society women may have traveled to Paris for their wardrobes, Heather preferred to shop in London. Her favorite tailor was Redfern, she went to court dressmakers Madame Mascotte for blouses and dresses and Kate Reilly for afternoon dresses and hats, among many other couturiers and shops.

Most delightful is a historical map of the period created by the authors, “Shopping with Heather Firbank” which is superimposed with numbers referencing her favorite shopping establishments around Regent, New Bond, and Piccadilly streets—still a shopping mecca in London 100 years later.  In this chapter, the authors also take the opportunity to briefly discuss the working life and work environment of the women who toiled in showrooms and workrooms before and during the First World War.  The hours were long and the pay was low. Their work lives on in these extraordinary garments and accessories.

Tailored jacket and skirt, Redfern, ca. 1911 from London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank, V&A Publishing, 2015

Tailored jacket and skirt, Redfern, ca. 1911
from London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank, V&A Publishing, 2015

Blouses from Mascotte and Irish Linen Stores, ca. 1910 and 1912 from London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank, V&A Publishing, 2015

Blouses from Mascotte and Irish Linen Stores, ca. 1910 and 1912
from London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank, V&A Publishing, 2015

The book is wonderfully illustrated, with nearly 50 full-page color plates, many showing close-up details for which V&A publications are well-known.  It also at times displays a history of dress curation at the V&A.  Photos over 20 or 30 years old show changing tastes in dress and accessory display.  Some older photographs have been cropped for new intended focus or are now reproduced in full color (such as the Lucile suit on the right, seen below) while some pieces are shown with new photography. Several court gowns or evening gowns are photographed flat, attesting to their extreme fragility and the challenges of displaying early 20th century garments.  And yet the majority of Heather’s wardrobe does appear on mannequins, expertly presented.

Tailored jacket and skirt, Lucile, 1912 from London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank, V&A Publishing, 2015

Tailored jacket and skirt, Lucile, 1912
from London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank, V&A Publishing, 2015

This is a tightly focused, well-researched and illustrated study on a period of women’s fashion that has been generally overlooked in recent decades–or was until the drama and costumes of Downtown Abbey, on which Heather’s wardrobe had a definite influence.  I would highly recommend this book as an informative and enjoyable resource for anyone interested in or researching British early 20th century couture, individual wardrobes with attached personal narratives, the history of shopping, couture workrooms and showrooms, London society, or simply beautiful and beautifully made clothes.

All photographs taken from London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank, V&A Publishing, 2015.

Sources cited:

400 Years of Fashion. Edited by Natalie Rothstein. (V&A Publishing: 2010).  First published by V&A Publications, 1984.

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