You Should Be Reading: Fashion and the Female Ideal

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We all know that the ideal female body–its shape, form, styling, even its very presence–has varied dramatically throughout human history. Readers of this blog are aware of the discussions surrounding the unattainably thin female body that has been in vogue for the past two decades, but what of the ways that fashion trends play into that ideal? How is that ideal body clothed? How do those clothes reinforce (or rebel) against the ideal? How have historical clothing trends addressed changing ideals? And (as some of you may be wondering), “Why does it matter?” Here are three articles, published recently, that tackle these questions. We hope you enjoy the selection!

1. Church Gibson, P. (2014). Pornostyle: Sexualized dress and the fracturing of feminismFashion Theory, 18(2), 189-206.

This article is premised on the suggestion that there are now two separate Western systems of fashion; here the word “system” is not intended to evoke the model suggested by Roland Barthes, but rather to refer, quite simply, to a pragmatic “system” of design, manufacture, distribution, and dissemination, similar to the cultural studies’ “circuit of culture” model of analysis. A new, unacknowledged “system” of design and promotion has emerged in the last decade, which has its own fashion leaders in young female celebrities, its own magazines to chronicle their activities and showcase their style, its own Internet presence, and its own retailing patterns. These young women often resemble in their self-presentation the “glamour models” or pin-up girls of popular men’s magazines, whose “look” is a muted version of the styling associated by many with that of hard-core pornography. The “body ideal” of this alternative system is very different to that of high-fashion; once again, it resembles the look of the women pictured in magazines for men. Although one or two writers on fashion have noted this new trend, it is feminist scholars who have shown most interest; they see the new system as part of the “pornification” of contemporary visual culture. A number of these same scholars are avowed anti-pornography campaigners and the author argues that this could further damage the fragile feminist project, already riven by differences. – Paraphrased Article Abstract

2. Kayoung, K., & Sagas, M. (2014). Athletic or sexy? A comparison of female athletes and fashion models in Sports Illustrated swimsuit issuesGender Issues, 31(2), 123-141. 

Using a modified version of Goffman’s (Gender advertisements. Harper Colophon, New York, 1976) gender display as a conceptual framework, this study examined the gendered body images of female athletes and female fashion models. The authors investigated sexualized female body images by comparing athletes with fashion models in Sports Illustrated (SI) swimsuit issues. Specifically, they used images of female athletes and female fashion models from SI swimsuit issues (n = 1,099) over the past 15 years (1997–2011). The variables analyzed included four photographic image categories: photo shot location, facial expression, body display, and hand display. The findings revealed few differences in sexual portrayals between female athletes and female fashion models. – Paraphrased Article Abstract

3. Scarborough, A. D., Hunt-Hurst, P. (2014). The making of an erogenous zone: The role of exoticism, dance, and the movies in midriff exposure, 1900-1946Dress, 40(1), 47-65.

This study examined the evolution of midriff exposure in fashionable apparel between 1900 and 1946. There were two objectives: 1) to understand the cultural factors that influenced its adoption, and 2) discover its stages in becoming an erogenous zone. In this exploratory study, a content analysis was conducted on the fashion magazines Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar; these primary sources, plus analysis of selections from three newspapers, proved to be useful for the exploration of how the exposed midriff evolved from exotic dance wear to fashionable apparel. Cultural events assisted in the progression of fashionable exposure from underwear, swimwear, casual wear to evening wear in clothing that bared the midriff. Standards of morality were instrumental in the process of evolution. Production Codes established for motion pictures reflected and reinforced the morality standards of US society. Parts of the body deemed inappropriate for show in the movies were likewise considered inappropriate for fashionable dress. The 1940s was the turning point as popular culture and World War II helped to stimulate interest and more fashion pages featured women in midriff exposing ensembles. – Full Article Abstract 


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A Postcard from Abroad: UK Endeavours

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.


CFP: Culture and Commerce in the Asian Traditional, Modern and Contemporary Music Industries

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 KoreaThe 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 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



On Teaching Fashion: Self-Care

Two months ago I attended a yoga workshop for stress relief. The yoga teacher began by asking each of us to say our name, occupation, and why we were stressed. Every person in the class, except one who was a mom with two teenage boys, was a teacher. I was surprised at this and so were the other teachers in the room. Teaching can become stressful when you are trying to juggle research, professional development, conferences, teaching, and helping students. I am always looking for a way to change this.

Screen shot 2014-07-11 at 2.20.17 PM

In the book “The Resilient Practitioner: Burnout Prevention and Self Care Strategies” written by Thomas M. Skovholt and Michelle J. Trotter-Mathison, the editor points out that “the helping professions: therapy, medicine, social work, and teaching, is demanding because of the nature of the work and these professionals can burn out, basically by giving too much attention to the clients instead of themselves.” Eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep will help you maintain your health so you can cope with stress easily. But what I got from the book was that problems will arise if you do not believe that you are the most important person that you need to care for. It is easy to say this but acting on it takes an effort from me. Especially since in my culture a woman is expected to care for others and if she chooses to put herself first she is seen as selfish. Being selfish should be a positive thing that we all strive for when it comes to our well-being. I always think of the announcement in the airplane where the attendants tell you “in the event of an emergency place your mask on first and then you can help others”. The book expands on this by stating “Within this larger pull of altruism versus self-care, counselors, therapists, teachers, clergy, and health professionals do their work attempting to live on the balance beam between too much other-care and too much self-care. For example, how much sleep deprivation should the practitioner endure to adequately prepare to help the client, student, or patient the next day? This is just one of many dilemmas continually faced by practitioners in the high-touch fields.”

The school semester begins next month and I’m reflecting on how I can put myself first this year. Exercise such as yoga classes or tai chi are great choices to strengthen your body and relax your mind. Massage is also an excellent choice especially for tired hands that teach apparel courses. I am also interested in practicing guided meditation which helps you refrain your thinking to stop old patterns. Belleruth Naparstek is my favorite source and she offers many free online options. I hope you can join me this school year and make a pledge to take care of yourself first. I would love to do another post next year and see how everyone did with self-care. Please let me know your thoughts. I look forward to hearing from you.


Domestic Affairs: Spotlight on “The Great War” at the Kent State Museum

A little over a week and a half ago, on June 28, my internet feeds were flooded with World War I articles. That was because June 28 was the centennial anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive in 1914 to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This year is the centennial year of the start of that conflict, and so in addition to the articles recapitulating the details of the Archduke’s assassination, of the war itself, and its major battles – and probably a dramatic increase in Downton Abbey sales and merchandise – the Kent State University Museum is honoring the event with what looks to be a truly wonderful exhibition.

They have a tradition of doing such exhibitions, having done On the Home Front: Civil War Fashions and Domestic Life in 2012 in honor of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. They also have an advantage in that this particular time period is a specialty of curator Sara Hume’s, her dissertation examines “the development and preservation of traditional or folk dress practices in Alsace in the face of pressure both from political conflict and mainstream fashion,” Alsace-Lorraine was one of the most contested regions between Germany and France during World War I. Sara was kind enough to take the time to speak with me about the exhibition, its focus and its challenges.

As with On the Home Front, this exhibition focuses on the women of World War I. However, instead of being left behind these women were the first to not only be allowed, but actually encouraged to actively participate in the war effort – not just as nurses but as enlisted personnel. This is just one of many changes society experienced across the board: this was the first war to employ airplanes, automobiles and tanks, and the last in which cavalry would play a major role. “Back home,” there were movies, and fashion was undergoing a whirlwind revolution from the traditional Edwardian silhouette to the boxy, “liberated” shapes of the 1920s. As Sara explained to me, the 1920s were the result of all the shifts and changes that happened between 1912 and 1918, largely as a result of the war and the changes it brought to women’s lives. The true revelation of The Great War: Women and Fashion in a World at War is how this change happened both so quickly, and yet incrementally when you look at it year by year.

US Navy Yeoman (F) uniform American, 1918 KSUM 2013.43.1 a-d Photograph by Vanessa Port

US Navy Yeoman (F) uniform
American, 1918
KSUM 2013.43.1 a-d
Photograph by Vanessa Port

In one of the first sections, “women at work” is the key theme. The exhibition focuses on the American war, which was far different from the European experience, but still had quite an impact. Despite joining the war so “late” in 1917, America would lose approximately 100,000 men to the point that in the 1920s young women outnumbered young men three to one. Using mixed media of clothing and ephemera, the exhibition places recruitment posters – including those by Howard Chandler Christy featuring his famous “Christy” girl wishing she was a man so she could join the Navy, or encouraging men to sign up – alongside a woman’s Naval uniform (above), showing that for the first time in American history, women could enlist for active duty, as this young yeoman had. The uniform is displayed next to a man’s army uniform for contrast, and also with uniforms for other women’s occupations, such as a nurse and a maid. These are all interspersed with suits for women, since the period of focus was a big time for women’s tailoring, since women were out working and taking a much more active role in society – something they couldn’t do in the elaborate costumes of the Edwardian era. Also in contrast to their immediate predecessors, the recruitment posters are not aimed exclusively at men. The exhibition features posters appealing directly to women to join as either nurses or enlisted personnel, or to join the “land army” to take up the farm work the men would vacate when they enlisted. All of this establishes the unique experience of American women during the war.

Navy blue and white swimsuit American, ca 1919  KSUM 1996.58.224 ab Photograph by Vanessa Por

Navy blue and white swimsuit
American, ca 1919
KSUM 1996.58.224 ab
Photograph by Vanessa Port

Another section of the exhibition focuses on athletic wear, play in contrast to the work. This is actually in keeping with the popularity of the “Christy” girl, who was seen as wholesomely athletic – which made her uniquely American in the minds of consumers at the time – she was also a young woman who had been to college, because educated women made the best wives and mothers. In this section of the exhibition, two gym uniforms and two bathing suits (one above) are featured, both of which foreshadow coming changes in fashion through a shift in emphasis on muscularity and exercise to maintain fashionable body shapes rather than on corsetry and petticoats. According to Sara the uniforms and swimsuits have a distinctly nautical style – a feature we both remarked as fascinating since the usurpation of distinctly masculine dress seems to be only acceptable in activewear and when it is imitating naval uniforms; a tradition I believe was established in the eighteenth century by women who borrowed naval details for their riding habits, considered scandalous then, but apparently completely accepted by 1912.

Corset of cotton eyelet over orange ribbons American, 1914  KSUM 1983.3.52 Photograph by Joanne Arnett

Corset of cotton eyelet over orange ribbons
American, 1914
KSUM 1983.3.52
Photograph by Joanne Arnett

To contrast with the emerging world of women’s sports, corsetry is also on display in The Great War. Ranging from 1912 until about 1918 or 1920, the corsetry shows as much as the clothing does the shift in silhouettes from the tubular Edwardian pieces to the girdles we typically associate with the Jazz Age. This segues nicely into what is the major feature of the exhibition: several pieces contrasting fashion at the beginning of the war (circa 1912 – 1914) with fashion at the end of it (circa 1918 – 1920).

Purple wool and chiffon dress American, 1912 KSUM 1986.20.1 a-c Photograph by Joanne Arnett

Purple wool and chiffon dress
American, 1912
KSUM 1986.20.1 a-c
Photograph by Joanne Arnett

Purple velvet and chiffon dress American, 1918  KSUM 1995.17.86 ab Photograph by Joanne Arnett

Purple velvet and chiffon dress
American, 1918
KSUM 1995.17.86 ab
Photograph by Joanne Arnett

One such comparison involves two dresses of a remarkably similar purple hue (above), which were both made no doubt for similar occasions and use, but that is where the similarities end. The shapes, skirt lengths, etc., are all radically different pre-war and post-war, showing the shift in women’s lives as much as the shift in the fashions they wore, and proving the underlying thesis of the exhibition – that what we see in the 1920s is the end result, the aftermath not the revolution itself which took place during the three-year period between 1914 and 1917. There are also four wedding gowns, two from the pre-war period and two from the end of the war to illustrate this change. One wedding gown from 1918 (below), Sara tells me, is so completely different from its 1912 – 1914 counterpart and features so many style details we associate with the Jazz Age – bell skirts, dropped waist, etc. – that without the provenance anyone looking at it would date it to the 1920s. But, it was definitely made for a bride in 1918.

Wedding dress American, 1918 KSUM 1995.17.1762 Photograph by Joanne Arnett

Wedding dress
American, 1918
KSUM 1995.17.1762
Photograph by Joanne Arnett

A revelation of the exhibition for the museum staff was that while the styles and fashion drastically simplified over the decade under examination, it took a long time for ideas about clothing construction to change with the fashions – they simply couldn’t imagine just pulling a gown on over their heads. In a post for the museum’s blog, curatorial assistant Joanne Arnett discusses the difficulties in dressing the mannequins in the garments due to the complicated construction and seemingly endless little snap closures.

Another challenge faced by the museum is the fact that the fashions of the time preferred fabrics that are delicate and a test of conservation: sheer fabrics, netting, tulle, delicate silks and satins which don’t stand up well over time and are tricky to display for long periods of time. There was also the problem of mannequins – those for the late-nineteenth century were too narrow due to the Edwardian love of corsetry, but those for later in the twentieth century didn’t have the proper posture, or came in strange, awkward poses that mimic fashion photography of later periods. It’s rather impractical for most museums to purchase all-new mannequins for one exhibition. Kent State rather masterfully created custom mounts on their existing mannequins, a process Sara wrote about for the museum’s blog, and which is well worth the read.

As my own research has moved progressively forward from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into the nineteenth and early twentieth, I have found it very hard to overemphasize the importance of World War I in the creation of what we think of as the modern world. From my discussion with Sara, my reading of the museum’s blog posts, and through the information and photos she has shared with me I think it is impossible to overemphasize the war’s affect on women’s fashion. It is the Teens, not the Twenties where the revolution took place; the “Flappers and Philosophers” of the post-war were merely finishing something what their older sisters and brothers had started. What I feel Sara and the rest of the museum staff have done is to masterfully place the fashion in a proper socio-historical context: giving a perspective of the whole war, and of the American experience of the war, while still focusing on women, how their lives were changing and the war accelerated that change, and how fashion reflected that.

The exhibition opens on July 24, and will be open until July 5, 2015. Quite long enough for me to be actively considering a cross-country trip just to see it. I think it is worth it.

If you are anticipating going to the exhibition, or as always, if there is an exhibition or event you know of and would like to share, please do not hesitate to share either in the comments or by emailing me.

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Museum Life: Charles James in Texas, Part II

From left: William Middleton, Susan Sutton, Lady Amanda Harlech, and Harold Koda  Courtesy of The Menil Collection

From left: William Middleton, Susan Sutton, Lady Amanda Harlech, and Harold Koda
at The Menil Collection, May 31, 2014. Courtesy of The Menil Collection

In my last post about the exhibition, A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James at The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, I gave some background on the de Menils, mentioned a few highlights of a panel discussion between Harold Koda, Lady Amanda Harlech, William Middleton, and exhibition curator Susan Sutton, and discussed some of the organizing principles and behind-the-scenes work for the exhibition. During the panel discussion, one of Koda’s sit-up-and-take-notice statements was that “he [James] had no respect for the fabric”, and was determined to make the fabric literally bend to his will.  This mode of working is indebted to his background as a milliner.  Several years ago, Heather Vaughan posted on Worn Through some wonderful photographs and descriptions of James’s unorthodox dressmaking methods and their relationship to the female body, which I’d encourage you to revisit.

This post will focus on the finished installation of A Thin Wall of Air. What is expressed in the three intimate rooms of the exhibition is the material evidence of creative partnership and mutual respect between James and Dominique de Menil. Front and center in this exhibition is not so much the genius of James, but the way in which his sometimes startling, sometimes subtle creations mesh perfectly with the de Menil’s artistic sensibilities. This came through the presentation in creative display choices and juxtapositions.

One of James’s gowns, most stunning in its asymmetry and interplay of textures, is the first object seen in the entryway. Although the gown is shown in a central location, unchallenged by any other object against an ice blue wall, its pedestal (and the bases of all the other dress form stands in the show) remains firmly grounded not only in James’s design choices but those of the de Menils.

The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

The grayish-black, rough textured-looking bases were created to echo James’s choice of metal for the base of a chaise longue he designed for the de Menil home (partially seen in the same gallery view above), and yet they also mimic the black wood floors of the Menil museum, with their visible grain and natural hue peeking through.

As Harold Koda commented during the panel discussion, in the context of the Menil museum, surrounded by the furniture that James designed and the paintings the de Menils collected and displayed in their home, one can “still see the person” of Dominique de Menil in the dressed “floating” forms.  James’s dress form for Dominique is also displayed in the front gallery, with a wonderful contradictory (and slightly Surrealist) inscription that encapsulates James’s design ethos quite nicely.  Printed near the base of the dress form are the words, “IDEAL” and “AVERAGE” (seen in full on the homepage of the website for textile conservator Tae Smith, who created the dress forms for the exhibition).

Charles James, Dress Form for Dominique de Menil, ca. 1950. The Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James. Photo: Adam Baker

Charles James, Dress Form for Dominique de Menil, ca. 1950. The Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James. Photo: Adam Baker

Dominique de Menil wearing a Charles James designed day suit seated on a chaise longue of his design, patio of Menil House. The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James. Photo: F. Wilbur Seiders

Dominique de Menil wearing a Charles James designed day suit seated on a chaise longue of his design, patio of Menil House. The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James. Photo: F. Wilbur Seiders

Koda also noted (while showing a startling photographic illustration of a model, ca. 1940s-1950s, attempting to straighten her body like a board and shimmy her way down into a James gown from above) that many a woman walked into a fitting with “her own body and walked out with James’s.” Through his highly complex and structured garments, James created his “ideal” body on an “average” body (if we can call the lithe and trim society women he dressed “average”), and yet a woman’s individual body is still an independent–and necessary–presence needed to complete his vision.  He must work with one particular form to achieve another.

James’s work in the de Menil home is strongly evoked through the gallery wall colors, recalling or directly quoting the strong or slightly “off” colors he chose for unconventional locations such as closets and hallways. Dominique de Menil wanted the building for the Menil Collection to feel both functional and modest, and the Menil Collection building is often compared to the architecture and feel of their private house. Curator Susan Sutton has attempted to create a home within a home, evoking the colors and opposing textures chosen by James for the de Menil’s personal home in the objects on display and on the surrounding gallery walls.

Selected colors were chosen as dramatic backdrops for the objects in the galleries, deliberately clashing with the garments placed in front of them.  One interesting juxtaposition is the dark green wall behind a textured yellow silk jacket in the second gallery, the latter of which still contains creases in the sleeves, previous marks of use that once more confirm the presence of its former wearer.

The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

Dominique de Menil wearing a Charles James designed evening jacket, with architect Philip Johnson. Houston, 1949.  The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James.  Photo: Houston Post

Dominique de Menil wearing a Charles James designed evening jacket, with architect Philip Johnson. Houston, 1949. The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James. Photo: Houston Post

James’s unusual textural pairings or contrasts of smooth and rough surfaces on the walls or interiors/exteriors of doors could also be seen in his design for a suit–a smooth, woolen exterior brushes against a colorful fur interior, peeking out subversively from the neckline and cuffs (and recalling Dominique de Menil’s preference for wearing fur coats inside-out). And again, the effective choice to line the interiors of the custom forms with the colors and textures matching the linings of the original garments highlight the unusual and “voluptuous” pairings favored by James and the de Menils.

Charles James, Wool Suit with Fur Lining and Silk Blouse, ca. 1950. The Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James. Photo: Adam Baker

Charles James, Wool Suit with Fur Lining and Silk Blouse, ca. 1950.
The Menil Collection, Houston.
Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James.
Photo: Adam Baker

Charles James, Theater coat, ca. 1949. The Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James. Photo: Adam Baker

Charles James, Theater coat, ca. 1949. The Menil Collection, Houston.
Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James.
Photo: Adam Baker

The persistent emphasis on embodiment during the panel discussion (mentioned in the previous post) unexpectedly revisited me in the galleries.  Placed in the center of the right-side gallery is an heptagon-shaped ottoman designed by Dominique de Menil, based on a previous design by James.  As my husband calmly took a seat on the ottoman, the museum person in me came out in full force–”Get up!  You can’t sit on that!!” But apparently–and happily–we could.


The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

Menil House living room, 1964. The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Balthazar Korab

Menil House living room, 1964.
The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston.
Photo: Balthazar Korab

Not only was it a nice vantage point to contemplate the garments and paintings around me, but it also directly involved our bodies and tactile sensory perception with the gallery objects.  Looking at velvet skirts and bodices while being able to touch and rest on velveteen created and used by Dominique de Menil was an interesting experience.  While looking down and running my hand along the tufted velvet, I noticed a single off-center, asymmetrical seam running across one side the ottoman–perhaps another design dialogue between de Menil and James?

Charles James, Wool Day Coat, 1947. The Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James. Photo: Adam Baker

Charles James, Wool Day Coat, 1947.
The Menil Collection, Houston.
Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James.
Photo: Adam Baker

This gallery seemed to me to best encapsulate this exchange of ideas and affinities between Dominique and James.  A painting by Victor Brauner, Charmeuse de metaux [Charmer of Metal] (1947), appears to be a male and female working together to create something–and the title also could allude to the “magic” that James creates with the complex and layered hidden apparatuses within his garments.  James even took a layering approach to his sketches, with some built up with other materials, taking on a three-dimensional quality (this is also echoed in another painting by Brauner which consists of layers of wax atop watercolor and ink).

The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

Charles James sketches for adjustable dress forms and furniture. The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

A third gallery, off to the left of the initial gallery, demonstrates James’s relationship to the wider de Menil family and their artistic life inside and outside the home.  A cluster of photographs includes a gown he created for Christophe de Menil, Dominique and John’s eldest daughter. And yet his connection to Dominique remains at the heart of the relationship, as evidenced in an inscribed photograph of James, taken by Cecil Beaton: “So many years later with much love always to both of you but specially to you Dominique. Charles”.

The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

Cecil Beaton, Portrait of Charles James, 1929.  The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James

Cecil Beaton, Portrait of Charles James, 1929. The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston.
Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James

Six evening and day wear pieces share the space with the photographs and two James hats (including a black satin “four-leaf-clover” in headgear form).

The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester


The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

Against a rich pink back wall is an early portrait (1932) of Dominique by Max Ernst and an undulating two-part sofa designed by James. Curator Sutton was delighted with this portrait in the context of the exhibition–the shells circulating around Dominique’s disembodied head recalled James’s conception of clothing as carapace.

Charles James designed two-part sofa in tan wool (1952) and Max Ernst portrait of Dominique de Menil (1932). The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

Charles James designed two-part sofa in tan wool (1952) and Max Ernst portrait of Dominique de Menil (1932). The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

Another painting in the adjacent gallery by Max Ernst, Day and Night (1941-42) was chosen by Sutton to allude to the inclusion of both day and evening wear, but it also is an apt allusion to James’s intervention in the Philip Johnson-designed de Menil home.  Ernst depicts organic and anthropomorphic shapes within rectalinear and trapezoidal frames, recalling James’s choice of sensual, curved shapes within the straight-edge lines of Johnson’s architecture. The combination of the straight-back and curved shapes of James’s banquette and sofa are like the piano he insisted be installed in the de Menil home (none of the de Menils played piano), expressing a bridge between James’s nostalgia for the Belle Epoque and modern forms.

Banquette designed by Charles James (1952) with painting by Max Ernst, Day and Night (1941-42)

Banquette designed by Charles James (1952) with painting by Max Ernst, Day and Night (1941-42). The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

At the Menil in general, explanatory or didactic wall text is absent and object labels are pared down to the essentials: artist, title, date, medium.  Juxtapositions between pieces, generally speaking, may not be directly causational or historically, culturally, or chronologically related. This approach is in keeping with the de Menils aim of avoiding “museum fatigue” and allowing objects to speak to each other in multiple ways that demonstrate how different ideas, approaches, and concepts shared by different artists can create new resonant associations. Visitors interested in learning more about specific historic and cultural contexts can pick up a particular exhibition brochure at the entrance/exit to the galleries, but generally can be left to make their own conclusions or connections between objects.

I find this museological approach interesting and refreshing, and I really appreciated how much could be so thoughtfully communicated through three small galleries. There is even more to discuss about this exhibition, but I hope those of you who are unable to make the trip to Houston have enjoyed seeing the gallery views and reading a bit about the exhibition.  I would strongly encourage anyone coming to Texas to visit the Menil before the exhibition closing date, September 7.

Many thanks to Susan Sutton and Gretchen Sammons for providing images.


CFP: Wear Your Nation – Wear Your Utopia?! Clothing, Fashion and Beauty in Historical Perspective

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

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


You Should Be Reading: Fashion and the Designer

fashion books from

This week, Worn Through would like to highlight a selection of articles that explore the role of the designer in the fashion process. While these articles address a wide variety of issues surrounding designers, they all focus on what it means to be a designer in the 21st century. From facing problems caused by fast-fashion to working with trade associations, and from incorporating sustainability to tackling the ever-present “art vs. commerce” debate, these five recently published articles present an array of viewpoints on the role and importance of the fashion designer. We hope you enjoy! 

1.  Laamanen, T-K., & Seitamaa-Hakkarainen, P. (2014). Interview study of professional designers’ ideation approaches. The Design Journal, 17(2), 194-217.

In addressing the subject of ideation in design, this paper reports on a series of focused interviews with nine professional designers from the fields of textile, fashion and interior design. The study concentrated on the practices undertaken by the designers before they come to, or form, a tentative idea for the design project. The authors were interested in professional designers’ ways of ideating, the use of sources of inspiration and the effect of previous professional experience on ideation. During the interviews, designers reflected on their ideation phase using materials from their previous design projects. The interview data were analysed by qualitative content analysis; the classification scheme was theory and data driven. In the analysis, the authors found that designers used supporting practices (such as collecting, sketching and experimenting) and triggers (sources of inspiration, mental image and primary generator) for framing the design space. Further, the authors distinguished four approaches to ideation: graphic, material, verbal and mental. Results are discussed in the light of previous research and the needs of design education. – Paraphrased Article Abstract 

2. Leslie, D., Brail, S., and Hun, M. (2014). Crafting an antidote to fast fashion: The case of Toronto’s independent fashion design sectorGrowth and Change, 45(2), 222-239.

The fashion industry has undergone a profound transformation in business practices and production systems over the past several decades. These shifts include the globalisation of production chains and the emergence of a new model of “fast fashion.” This paper investigates the response of independent fashion designers in Toronto, Canada to the growing competition posed by fast fashion. It identifies a number of strategies utilised by designers to compete, arguing that they are increasingly adopting a new model of “slow fashion,” which opens up possibilities for forging locally and ethically based relationships in the fashion sector. – Full Article Abstract

3.  Palomo-Lovinski, N., & Hahn, K. (2014). Fashion design industry impressions of current sustainable practicesFashion Practice, 6(1), 87-106.

Sustainable practices in clothing have not, thus far, created a significant impact and instead continue to be largely marginalized within the fashion industry. The fashion industry continues to work in an inefficient manner that creates massive waste, exploits workers, and makes it increasingly difficult to make a substantial profit. There is wide disagreement among design environmentalists where energies must be focused to solve these problems. Many believe that consumers are primary instigators in change. Consumers do not understand any of the logistical or practical considerations of clothing design. Designers are, however, responsible for as much as 80 percent of any product that is introduced and have the ability to influence how fabric is sourced and how clothing is produced, cared for, and then discarded. This article explores professional fashion designers’ understanding and awareness of the current best practices in sustainable design. Thirty-five design professionals were surveyed about sustainability in fashion to assess what was missing in their education. The results are interpreted and analyzed as a basis for a new focus on curricula within the American college system and to create lasting and substantive change in the fashion. — Full Article Abstract 

4. Pedroni, M., & Volonté, P. (2014). Art seen from the outside: Non-artistic legitimation within the field of fashion designPoetics, 43, 102-119.

This article focuses on the relation between art and fashion—two fields of cultural production marked by contrasts and shifting boundaries—by investigating it in light of the perceptions of art among ordinary fashion designers. Drawing on an institutional perspective that conceives fashion and art as social fields, the authors summarize the effects produced between the two fields and outline the processes of identity formation and the legitimation of fields of cultural production. Empirical research on a sample of Milanese fashion designers allows the authors to determine whether or not fashion designers use art as a means to acquire legitimacy and to create an identity, thereby institutionalising their field of cultural production (fashion) as artistic. The authors’ argument is that identification with art is often rejected by ordinary fashion designers, who seek to legitimate their cultural production, not through art, but through a culture of wearability. The case of Milanese fashion adds breadth and depth to the theory of artification and to the production of culture theory by showing that comparison with the fine arts by actors in a field of cultural production in constant search of legitimation may come about through channels other than assimilation into the world of art. – Paraphrased Article Abstract 

5. Rantisi, N. M. (2014). Exploring the role of industry intermediaries in the construction of ‘local pipelines’: The case of the Montreal fur garment cluster and the rise of fur-fashion connections. Journal of Economic Geography, doi: 10.1093/jeg/lbu019.

The fur garment cluster in Montreal, Canada has been undergoing a gradual process of transformation in the last two decades, marked by the increasing incorporation of fashion design as a competitive strategy. This article explores the role played by a trade association intermediary, the Fur Council of Canada, to promote this design-led form of development. In particular, it examines a series of initiatives undertaken by the Fur Council in collaboration with other actors to promote greater links, or ‘local pipelines’, between the fashion and fur industries. Drawing primarily on semi-structured interviews, the article draws particular attention to efforts to reduce the cognitive distance between potential pipeline actors as a basis for pipeline construction. – Full Article Abstract


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The International Journal of Fashion Studies: a new platform for non-English scholars

This week I had the pleasure of attending the UK launch of a new journal that focuses on the dissemination of fashion studies by non-English scholars at London College of Fashion. The International Journal of Fashion Studies aims to continue a long tradition of understanding fashion as a multi-disciplinary field by providing a much needed platform for work from international writers and thinkers whose first language is not English. In order to do this, the editors Emanuela Mora, Agnès Rocamora and Paolo Volonté, of which none speak English as their first language, have developed an innovative peer review system where contributions are scientifically reviewed in their original language before translated into English for the final publication. Languages currently covered are Danish, English, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croat, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish, however both the editors and Intellect, the publisher, hope this will widen out as more peer reviewers and contributors become involved in the journal’s development.

The first issue, which is available to download for free, includes contributions in French, Finnish and Portuguese covering a wealth of subjects including clothing worn by prisoners on their way to concentration camps in the Second World War, the geopolitics of fashion capitals and Brazilian fashion as understood by Brazilians. This and much more are brought together in a refreshing but thought provoking introduction by the three editors where they discuss both the linguistic and epistemological issues relevant to this new endeavor.

I had the opportunity to ask the editors Agnès and Paolo about what it was like to put this journal together. Both expressed great enthusiasm for the project, drawing upon editorial collaboration and the overwhelming interest by non-English scholars as positive highlights. While Agnès observed the unexpected but exciting arrival of a contribution in a language not covered by the existing peer reviewers, Paolo commented on the high level of demand for the idea which had overall made the whole process much easier than expected. Upcoming issues will focus on topics such as sustainable fashion and non-Western fashion.

I also managed to have a chat with Sarah Cunningham, Journals Manager for Intellect. Sarah commented on the rigour given to the peer review system and the opportunities the journal offers to researchers and scholars who may not have the resources to translate their work. Although contributors will initially fund the final translation, Intellect is looking at ways to be able to offer funding in order to broaden its international reach and establish relationships with those whose work may go unnoticed otherwise.

The International Journal of Fashion Studies is one of several fashion/dress/cloth related journals Intellect currently publish which include Critical Studies in Men’s Fashion, Clothing Cultures, Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty and Fashion, Style & Popular Culture. It was exciting to see so many titles in the catalogue, expressing the diversity of approaches that make the study of fashion, dress and cloth both fascinating and relevant to our everyday lives.

The editors of the International Journal of Fashion Studies have also set up a Facebook page called Fashion Studies which can be found here and details for anyone interested in contributing either as a writer or an editor can be found on the Intellect website.

1. Top image used courtesy of


From the Archives: Parisian Insights: The Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent Online Archives

Today, I invite you to look back at my last September post about the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent’s online archives. The website is being, slowly but surely, completed, with various costume drawings. A quick reminder urging you to keep your eye open on this treasured online resource!


As a student and during my early years as a researcher (not a very long time ago!), I tended to be quite suspicious of the internet. Online resources were not always well developed and except for a few museum’s websites, I would mistrust information found on the web: I would only rely on books! I have, fortunately, since, learnt to see online information as an ally as long as I know how to sort out the material.

In France, fashion and costume museums are late: their websites present little are no patrimonial documentation. Les Arts Décoratifs do propose about 2000 objects within their database and are a future partner of the Europeana Fashion project whilst the Musée Galliera does not even possess a proper website. [at this date, they now do]

I was therefore thrilled to learn that the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent is working on the digitization of their documentation. Little by little, all the fashion drawings, costume projects, posters and spectacle décors will be online. For the moment, you can find the exquisite Paper Dolls imagined by Yves Saint Laurent between 1953 and 1955. A fantastic resource!

As a teenager, the couturier imagined his ideal fashion house, ‘Yves Mathieu Saint Laurent Couture Place Vendôme‘: his models are paper dolls for which he imagines garments and accessories. He also details collection programs that precise who are the textile suppliers and that the models’ hair is done by Carita and make-up by Elisabeth Arden. It is quite amazing to observe how a childlike game can reveal itself as very serious and herald a future fruitful career.

Paper Doll 'Ivy' Copyright: Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent

Paper Doll ‘Ivy’
Copyright: Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent


The foundation, now, possesses 11 dolls, more than 400 paper garments and more than 100 accessories and the online category enables visitors to dress up these dolls: a playful and pedagogic way of discovering the collection.

You can also browse through a few of the designer’s posters and drawings that highlight Yves Saint Laurent’s creativity and artistic sense that did not confine itself to fashion only.

Whilst working for Christian Dior, in 1956, Yves Saint Laurent imagined a cartoon for adults, entitled ‘La Vilaine Lulu‘ (Naughty Lulu) who enjoys being provocative and cruel: a humorous work that was published in 1967.  You can discover on the foundation’s website 10 little illustrated stories.

Finally, are visible costume designs conceived for Jean Seberg in Moment to Moment, Sophia Loren in Arabesque, Catherine Deneuve (his favourite!) in Belle de Jour, la Chamade and La Sirène du Mississippi and Anny Duperey in Stavisky.

Belle de Jour Costume Sketch. Copyright: Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent

Belle de Jour Costume Sketch – 1967.
Copyright: Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent

It’s always fantastic to observe the preparatory work prior to the making of a film. I haven’t seen all the films cited but a few, Belle de Jour , La Sirène du Mississippi and Arabesque: it eases the experience. You can guess behind the pencil sketch, the actress’s figure and character; you can affix the tones and the environment…

I imagine this section is in the making as it is still very poor and lacks further information about the costumes and films themselves; I hope this category will be fed in the future to add a touch of celebrity glamour to the website!

The fashion section has not been started yet and I cannot wait for it to be online: that will be the ultimate resource!

When I was in charge of the organisation of Guy Laroche’s archives, rummaging (that is the exact term! Drawings had all been thrown into boxes and had been sleeping there for more than 10 years) through the sketches and classifying them: I truly sensed the worth of illustrations. Not that I hadn’t before but I was quite an object-obsessed! I needed three-dimensional objects to comprehend a trend or a history and to me, drawings only completed the information. At Guy Laroche, I had no objects to rely on, illustrations and (hopefully!) a few photographies were my only resources. At that point, I started treasuring these documents, understanding the primary data they would diffuse and today, I still need an object because I esteem ‘the finished product’  but I definitely value these handmade elementary resources. 

The foundation’s online archives are not perfect right now: the digitalization is an ongoing process so I imagine that justifies the lack of explanations along certain documents. I, however, find the site very aesthetic and easy to use (especially the Paper Doll section). I don’t know if, once the site is completely achieved, there will be more interaction between the objects and the categories but I do hope so: a method that will enable visitors to stumble upon archives they had not previously planned to research!

I tried to switch on the English version to test it for you but it didn’t seem to work: a momentary problem? The translation has not been done yet? I’d be curious to know whether, despite the website may only be in French at this time,  it is useful and valuable for English speaking-only users. Let me know!

What do you think of online resources? Are you like me a few years ago: a book-only researcher? Do you practice both? 

I secretly wish that in the future, the foundation would also digitalize photographies of its collection of garments: therefore, this online resource will be mere perfection! Do you agree?