Under the London Fashion Umbrella: From the British Path

Emma is away for the month, so for her two April columns I’ll be digging around the British Pathé fashion reel archives.

To start, especially since racing season has begun, who could say no to a three-minute reel about the Queen’s hats?

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Parisian Insights: Shozo Shimamoto

This weekend ended the Parisian art fair entitled Art Paris. I regularly attend art fairs in order to discover new artists and also take note of the trends of the art market. As I passed by the De Buck Gallery’s space, I was attracted by a hanging shirt splattered with paint. The art work was by Shozo Shimamoto, a Japanase artist – who died in 2013 – who had participated to the foundation of the Gutai movement, an eastern answer to the American post-war action painting. Shozo Shimamoto specialized, from the 1950s, in the making of art pieces via the elaboration of dynamic performances. During his performances, the artist would throw paint entrapped in various containers that would thus explose once they had hit their targets, most often a simple canvas. The performance would therefore lead to three art moments: the performance itself, the canvas and all the collateral damages – adjacent objects splattered by paint.

Shozo Shimamoto, Felissimo 40 - 2007 - De Buck Gallery

Shozo Shimamoto, Felissimo 40 – 2007 – De Buck Gallery

 

Shozo Shimamoto not only produced paintings but also invited trivial reminders of his performances, that from minor witnesses would later become major art works as soon as the artist decided to isolate them, sign them and enclose them within a frame. I must admit I have found very little information about the artist and his performances. All I did discover is that the different painted clothing signed by the artist and that can be found today in various collections are the result of a performance entitled Felissimo as it was commissioned by the Japanese brand bearing the same name and took place at the Kobe Fashion Museum in 2007. The Felissimo performance is one of the rare artistic moments in the artist’s existence that had something to do with fashion. Yet fashion here did not serve a purpose nor a discourse, the white clothes used during this performance were simply an innovative canvas, the means of a transformation. The whole performance engaged with sound and action, there’s something very chaotic and almost violent in the way the painting containers are hit and thrown towards the floor below and when we observe the splattered clothes, we can’t help but think of them as victims stained by watercolor that evokes blood. Like all the objects found within his performances, Shozo Shimamoto turned the pieces of clothing into unique art works. The shirt I saw at the fair is signed and numbered and hangs within a glass case: fashion and art closely mingled.

Alexander McQueen, SS 1999 - Shalom Harlow

Alexander McQueen, SS 1999 – Shalom Harlow

The Felissimo art works instantly recalled two further artistic projects. First, I could not help but look back at Alexander McQueen‘s 1999 Spring-Summer show and Shalom Harlow’s encounter with mechanical robots that sprayed paint on her immaculate dress. I don’t know whether Shozo Shimamoto had this peculiar moment in mind when he organized his own performance but to me there’s something similar in the violence of the action. The main difference yet resides in the fact that when Alexander McQueen used inorganic machines to ‘attack’ a human being, Shozo Shimamoto invited humans to assail inanimate objects.

François Aubert, Emperor Maximilien's Shirt, 1867

François Aubert, Emperor Maximilien’s Shirt, 1867

Finally, examining the framed shirt, I was reminded of François Aubert’s iconic photography from 1867. The French photographer created a historical and artistic momentum when he photographed the shirt of the Emperor Maximilien that had just been executed in Mexico. Without depicting the execution itself and with this stained shirt pierced by bullets, the photographer evoked a macabre shroud and turned the intimate piece of clothing of a man into the abstract symbol of death.  Within Shozo Shimamoto, I found that similar morbid feel and the process of turning something trivial into a more grandiose concept. When clothing is seized by contemporary art, it often takes on disturbing feelings as if the inanimate garment, separated from flesh and movement, comes too close to death and sorrow. That is why there lies the whole challenge for fashion curators who need to bring life to their motionless objects..

I would love to hear about your opinion on that subject and if any of you have further information concerning Shozo Shimamoto’s work and the Felissimo performance, I would love to read about it.

Further Resources:

You can watch the performance, here.

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You Should Be Watching: The Artist Project

Launched last week on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s YouTube Channel, The Artist Project looks at specific artists or works of art in the Museum’s permanent collection from the perspective of artists who have been affected by that work. The whole 20-episode series is worth watching, with an average episode length of three minutes. Below, I’ve shared the introduction to the series, along with three episodes of interest to fashion and textile historians. The first examines Kuba cloths of the Democratic Republic of Congo; the second and third highlight two painters that depicted detailed costume in their portraits: Hans Memling and John Singer Sargent. Watching these videos makes me want to visit the Met soon to take another look at these objects. The Met plans to produce 5 seasons of The Artist Project for a total of 100 episodes.

In this online series, artists reflect on what art is, what inspires them across 5,000 years of art, and in so doing, they reveal the power of a museum and The Met. Their unique and passionate ways of seeing and experiencing art encourage all museum visitors to look in a personal way. – YouTube Video Description

Nick Cave, the creator of the cartoonish Sound Suits that exhibited at Boston’s ICA last year, revisits the Kuba textiles that first inspired him when he was 18 years old.

Visual artist Nina Katchadourian, the photographer behind the viral “Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style,”  speaks affectionately of the Early Netherlandish portraits she views whenever she is at the Met.

Kehinde Wiley‘s own painting of The Veiled Christ is in the Met’s collection. Wiley discusses class boundaries and the motivations underlying the dress and poses of John Singer Sargent’s portrait subjects.

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How to teach fashion when you’ve stopped believing in fashion?

Fashion. It is a world of glitz and glam, fairy tales and extravaganza. Modern fashion of the last few decades needs the combination of creativity, smart business strategies and lots of hype in order to exist. I used to be someone who just loved loved loved loved! the new it-bag which retailed at GBP 500, or absolutely had to have those high heels fresh off the catwalk which only the coolest fashionistas of the world’s capitals knew about. Attending amaaaazing fashion shows, running my own small label and doing my very own shows, mixing with the “right crowd” and following the most important trends used to be my thing when I was younger.

Grace Coddington

A make-believe fashion shoot by Grace Coddington for Vogue.

At some point, however, I learned that this is a deceptive industry, a huge, multi-billion-dollar business, selling us a world of luxury, make-believe, unattainable beauty and dream aspirations. It’s not all gold that glitters, you can say, and it can be equally unfair on the consumers as well as on the creators.

Let’s start with the designers. The most talented creative minds can easily still live in a flat share well into their 30s and freelance from one job to the other, hoping to make it big one day or at least pay the next bill in the meantime. They might have masterminded that iconic T-shirt print last season, but only their friends will ever know that. (Besides, sometimes it’s the connections that help one land that job and not the honestly-earned degree.) And quite a few big designers were fighting bankruptcy on their way up, including Yves-Saint-Laurent, Christian Lacroix and Valentino just to name a few. It’s a tough business.

How about the imagery and ads? I’ve learned that the most celebrated fashion models can end up used and forgotten within a few seasons (or even very ill due to being a size zero) and it turns out that magazines and Photoshop are best friends who want consumers to believe in unattainable beauty standards.

And while we flood the high streets in order to buy whatever the magazines wrote about, we rarely think about the ones who sewed the clothes. The extreme mark-up is hardly ever justified when you look at true production cost.

There is a lot of truth to a TV series like Ugly Betty or the famous movie about an iconic editor-in-chief who wears Prada. I remember a friend who was not in the fashion industry asking me: “Are people really like that in the fashion industry?” I smiled and replied: “Of course not! They are much much worse!” Such were my observations and experiences, that at some point I felt like I did not believe in fashion anymore.

Ugly Betty

Image source here.

But I have returned to lecturing on fashion and now I need to figure out how to do it positively. After all, these young students who signed up for my classes are considering a career in the industry and need motivation on their way. So in order to get my mind back into fashion, I slowly started looking at those elements which I still love. For example, I watched the movie on Valentino, “Valentino the last Emperor,” which recounts the story of a truly gifted couturier and one of the last ones in his metier.

Valentino

Image source here.

I did not stop admiring couture and I will still drool over the perfect stitching in exclusive clothes, such as my vintage Emanuel Ungaro dress, or vintage Chanel costume. Equally I am still in awe of Martin Margiela’s one-off creation which I bought at his strore in London. That store all painted white, it was a phenomenal concept when it opened. And the 1980s Karl Lagerfeld skirt which I inherited from my mother….

Martin Margiela 0 Vest Selfie in Karl Lagerfeld skirt

[The Margiela vest on the left consists of a shirt, tie and vest stitched together, missing the sleeves and the back; and a selfie in an 80s Karl Lagerfed printed wool skirt.]

Then I went through my own vast library of books and magazines on fashion, of which some I had not touched in years. There is a book on Adrian, the man who dressed Hollywood in its most glamorous time; a September Issue of Vogue featuring Kate Moss’ wedding and a few rare magazines which I bought in Japan. Then there are my own files from my time as an MA student at Central Saint Martins in London. Oh what memories! We were all so eager and did such amazing work.

I also looked at current topics of the fashion industry. For example, I found the retail strategy of Uniqlo to be amazing, especially because I spent some time in Japan when Uniqlo was only available there. Equally amazing is the steady decline of Abercrombie & Fitch which has had difficulties breaking into the European and German market and has to finagle its way out of numerous scandals.

And then I fell in love with Olivier Rousteing. What a beautiful, talented and smart boy! Look at Balmain’s social media strategy which has catapulted the brand into another dimension all thanks to a 24-year-old “kid” whom they gave a chance.

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Image source here.

I think, after this process I have recovered my love for fashion and found a mature, adult viewpoint:

I refuse to worship the industry, but I am willing to believe in its talents and beauty. And that’s why I want the students to be alert regarding the charades of the fashion industry, including its misleading ideals. This way I can stay true to my principles whilst motivating the students. But even if they are motivated now, ultimately, only time will tell who will stay in fashion and who will choose to leave it. Because only those who really love love love fashion, despite all its setbacks, will stay in this industry. And, as it turns out, it seems that I still have a lot of love for it.

What do you think? Do you ever have mixed feelings about your industry and the topic you teach? Have you experienced the highs and lows of fashion or has your career path always been a smooth one? What do you tell your students who start their first semester, hoping to become the next Lagerfeld, the next Anna Wintour or mega-star blogger?

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Book Review: Exhibiting Fashion: Before and After 1971

I’ll say straight out that as an admirer of the work of Amy de la Haye and Judith Clark, I was happy to see a publication on fashion exhibitions coming from these two accomplished and innovative curators.  As many Worn Through readers are likely aware, Clark and de la Haye have curated several exhibitions for the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and are faculty at the London College of Fashion.  They take very different approaches to the practice and subject of fashion curation, which often intersect with each other.  Clark has been careful not to call herself a “dress historian”, preferring to use fashion to “talk about other things” (Clark and Philips, 2010: 110) and make linkages in aesthetics, philosophies, and design techniques and strategies across time and space. De la Haye takes an object-based, historical approach guided by material culture studies and the social life of dress. The front and back covers illustrate these approaches and the ultimate goal of the book quite nicely, with an archival installation photograph of the main subject of study, “Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton” (front cover), and its trajectory into the future with a recasting of the exhibition’s promotional imagery and Beaton’s garment selection through a photograph from Harper’s Bazaar in 2013 (back cover).

Front and back covers of Exhibiting Fashion: Before and After 1971, Yale University Press,

Front and back covers of Exhibiting Fashion: Before and After 1971, Yale University Press, 2014

This study is not an exhaustive overview of the history of fashion exhibition themes, strategies, protagonists, or techniques (de la Haye directs readers to Lou Taylor’s excellent Establishing Dress History [2004] for more detailed historical analysis). The title alludes to this incompleteness by referencing a specific pivotal date in time–the year 1971.  The authors take “Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton” (henceforth referred to in this review as “Anthology”) as a significant marker that changed how fashion was interpreted and displayed, “a moment of shift in fashion curatorship” (p. 6).  Overall, the focus is squarely on the V&A and Beaton’s exhibition, with brief discussions of exhibitions and exhibiting strategies at other museums in the UK, Europe, and the U.S. (the latter mainly the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Because Anthology is not discussed by Beaton in his diaries or by his subsequent biographers, de la Haye and Clark saw a gap in discussion and an opportunity to give this exhibition the scrutiny it deserves, utilizing the recollections and research of past V&A curators, the institutional papers, and archival photographs.

De la Haye and Clark set up their case by first giving some crucial historical context as to why Beaton’s exhibition matters so much (the first three chapters are written by de la Haye). Historically, garments were first kept at the V&A because of the quality or importance of the textile only, or the trimmings or embroideries as evidence of craft.   In the context of the V&A, modern, contemporary fashion was not collected pre-1971.  Up to that point, the goal of bringing legitimacy and respectability to the study of fashion and dress continued to be hard-fought, with the prevalent attitude to costume throughout most of the 20th century as being a “a sort of rather unholy by-product of the textile industry,” to quote Charles Gibbs-Smith commenting on the occasion of James Laver’s death in 1975 and the respectability that Laver brought to the study of costume in England (p. 38). De la Haye dedicates several pages to three British dress study and curation pioneers–James Laver, Doris Langley Moore, and Anne Buck.  These “curatorial case studies” not only acknowledge their contributions to the field but also act as a foil or significant antecedent to the display and curatorial choices within Beaton’s exhibition.

An important point de la Haye emphasizes is that the only two exhibitions of modern fashion at the V&A in the 20th century (pre-1971) were organized by non-professional curators, or by those outside of the museum world–Beaton in 1971, and the 1946 exhibition, “Britain Can Make It” (BCMI), by James Gardner, affectionately known as “G”.  Both exhibitions were also connected to the commercial side of fashion as well–the Council of Industrial Design for BCMI, and the talents of window dressers from major department stores and the inclusion of contemporary London boutiques for Anthology.  BCMI was an industry show of mixed media with a large emphasis on contemporary fashion for men, women, and children–some fashions so new that they were not yet available to the buying public.  The role of exhibition designer did not exist before WWII, and BCMI showcased innovative and “fantastical” exhibition techniques and tableaux by Gardner that were new to the presentation of fashion.  This is evident in numerous archival photographs found at the Brighton University’s Design Archives that reveal spaces filled with theatricality, a sense of movement, and a touch of Surrealism, and contrast with photographs of costume display at the V&A pre-1946 in previous pages, which tend to show garments in rows of display cases or configurations that call for contemplation of single or small clusters of garments in a spare, uncluttered space. Interestingly, BCMI continues to be the highest attended show in the V&A’s history.  Eye-catching, theatrical, and highly designed exhibitions continue to draw crowds and capture the public’s imagination today.

Next, de la Haye discusses Beaton’s artistic practice.  Numerous examples of his innovative approaches in film and theater design, photography, and his love of fancy dress and the fashionable people he often photographed inform how he envisioned his collection, and ground the presentation of dress seen in the exhibition images in Chapter 3.  One can see Beaton’s penchant for creating tableaux with unusual, “low tech” materials (such as distinctive foam masks on mannequins, originally intended for their packing and transport), and his love of illusion and “metamorpheses of space” that were realized through the work of exhibition designer Michael Haynes.

Beaton first suggested the idea for an exhibition of modern fashion to the museum’s then-director, John Pope-Hennessy, in 1969.  Couture would be its “central tenet”, and it was accepted by the director with the stipulation that the exhibition would steer clear of celebrity and promote the garments as “works of art”, not “socially salient objects”, in keeping with the V&A’s emphasis on design (p. 69).  Ironically, this focus would fall short of Beaton’s original vision of highlighting the specific personalities and tastes of the fashionable women he admired (this would be done four years later at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “American Women of Style”, curated by Beaton’s close friend, Diana Vreeland).  Instead, the exhibition was broken up into 16 sections, some chronological (1920s, 1930s, 1950s), some dedicated to a particular designer (Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy), some to English contemporary design (Mary Quant, Biba), some to a particular “look” (Space Age) or group (Royal Family).

De la Haye examines this loss of object biography in an extended discussion of Diana Vreeland’s sequined Chanel pyjama suit, which she first considered in her article on Beaton’s Anthology in Fashion Theory (Haye, 2006).  She not only considers Vreeland’s ensemble in the context of Anthology, but also how its presentation and attendant meanings have shifted and changed in the years before and after 1971, both at the V&A and other institutions worldwide.  This is a good set-up for Clark’s later section, which traces the outward and inward reverberations backwards and forwards in time of the styling, construction, display, and conceptual approaches in the exhibition.

One of the strengths of this book is the copious illustrations, many of which have never been seen before this publication, and that dominate the central section of the book.  There is not one section of this publication that is not significantly illustrated.  In talking about and researching exhibition history, images are crucial, and oftentimes they are all we have in reconstructing a curator’s vision or intention.  Sometimes there are none at all left to posterity.  The size of the publication, nearing coffee table book-size at 12 inches in length, lends itself well to showing off the color and black-and-white installation photos to their best advantage.

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Complete documentation of installations is common now, but much more unusual for exhibitions of the past.  De la Haye notes that often the timing of publication and exhibition do not coincide, and that studio shots are generally privileged over installation images. Likely because of the high-profile nature of the Beaton exhibition, many installation photographs exist; several photos show the same installation from different vantage points.  This is extremely helpful for analysis, as both de La Haye and Clark note that the object selection for exhibition was done very hastily, and the exhibited items are not noted in the catalog (all 405 garments and accessories from Beaton’s collection–donated to the V&A, the first significant gift of contemporary fashion–are listed).  De la Haye describes Beaton’s installation and Haynes’s design as “enticing, exacting, and original” (p. 72) even to our eyes today, and the photographs of extremely varied and dynamic tableaux are very convincing of this point.   As Judith Clark points out in her later section (#15, “The Mannequins–Gestures”, p. 145), the shorthand or “simplistic equations” for mannequin choices were not established as of 1971.  Anthology’s configurations and mannequin types (especially the bald, makeup-less ones) may look very familiar to our contemporary eyes and we may forget how experimental they were at the time.  Some viewers found the bald mannequins, their heads draped with chiffon, unattractive, “as though there was a bank raid in progress” (p. 104); it was also revolutionary at the time for designer boutiques to use mannequins–the standard method was flat display for garments.

When the book shifts to dusty rose pink pages with red ink print, this aesthetic clue tells us that we are shifting gears–the visual equivalent of “now for something completely different.”  Despite this signal and pleasing color combination (and not the only case in the book where color is used to indicate a transition in direction), I must say that the red print on pink paper is extraordinarily difficult to read, even in the best of lighting situations.

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Judith Clark chooses “28 Aspects” of the exhibition on which to focus her attention, whether it is the multiple meanings of a styling prop (#6, “Wigs”; #15, “The Mannequins–Gestures”; “Peach Mirror”), the employment of certain kinds of materials (#14, “Gauze–Blurring”; #10, “Perspex”), future exhibitions inspired by the methods or motivations of Beaton’s Anthology (#4, “Environments, 1996″; #24, “After Beaton, Jones”), a design or museological strategy (#13, “Rotations”; #1, “Finding Space”), or exhibition images that elucidate Anthology catalog entries (#7, “Painted Backdrops: Dali, Bosch and Lepape”), to name a few.

Clark weaves a web of connections between the exhibition and its designers, collaborators, and overall aims to other exhibitions, designers, imagery, museum practice and display approaches past and present.  For example, she considers how contemporaries such as Anna Piaggi and vintage dealer Vern Lambert affected Anthology and Beaton’s vision (#23, “Italian Vogue”) and how future designers like Gianfranco Ferre followed threads considered by Anthology and engaged fashion past and present simultaneously (#4, “Environments, 1996″). In the majority cases the visual and textual evidence for her time and space traveling is intriguing and compelling.  She uses Anthology to “talk about other things” (her quote referenced above) and raises some interesting questions, such as, “If the object (dress) is already defined by its commercial production and established means of dissemination, does it mean that the exhibition can only be an extension of this, or can it be a critique of it too?” (p. 151). 

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Some readers may find this open-ended, non-conclusiveness unsatisfying, but in many cases a definitive answer to many of these questions is not possible nor necessarily desired, and leaves the question open for the reader to consider. However the reader chooses to view 28 Aspects, I find that Clark takes an interesting approach to dissecting the meanings and significance of the various exhibition strategies and circumstances, and how they have been culled from both the past and contemporary practice and reverberate forward into the future. Clark’s meditations are about exploring possibilities and connections, anticipated and unexpected.

The final section, “An Incomplete Inventory of Fashion Exhibitions Since 1971″ by Jeffrey Horsley, is also illustrated and invites the reader to chart further the traces of or departures from Anthology throughout subsequent exhibitions, from 1971 to 2014.  The image of a robe à la française at the Musée Galliera reflected in an infinity mirror (p. 199) recalls the optical illusion mirror in the Dior section of Anthology, or the concentric black and white squares behind Beaton’s costume for My Fair Lady that greeted visitors at the exhibition entrance.

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Horsley culled exhibition dates and titles from colleagues, his own collection of exhibition brochures and ephemera, and from exhibition reviews in journals.   Exhibition trends, though not conclusive, reveal that exhibits of wedding attire, 18th century dress, and accessories (hats, shoes, etc.) are perennially popular.  The “thought show”, or exhibitions examining cultural and social issues surrounding fashion continue to grow since the 1990s; designer monograph exhibitions are also very popular but remain Eurocentric, with the exception of Japanese contemporary designers.

Beaton reflected on his regret that he could not include or acquire everything he wished for for the exhibition and the larger collection with the statement, “I comforted myself that an anthology, by its nature, is always incomplete” (p. 71).  Those looking for a definitive, complete study of international fashion exhibition history in this publication will be disappointed. This publication offers instead a thought-provoking, creative–and incomplete–approach to looking at exhibiting fashion and a pivotal moment in fashion exhibition history.  Overall, Clark, de la Haye, and Horsley’s study successfully demonstrates how Anthology was, especially for the V&A, a plunge into uncharted territory with new and exciting presentations of not just historical fashion, but clothing of the moment.  It provides fascinating material to return to again and again, and leaves out a welcome mat for all who wish to venture further into the research of the fashion exhibition.

Sources referenced:

Clark, Judith and Phillips, Adam (2010).  The Concise Dictionary of Dress.  London: Violette Limited.

Haye, Amy de la (2006). Vogue and the V&A Vitrine:  An Exploration of How British Vogue has responded to Fashion Exhibitions at the Victoria & Albert Museum from 1971 to 2004, with specific reference to the exhibition, “Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton” and garments imprinted with wear. Fashion Theory (10): 127-151.

Taylor, Lou (2004). Establishing Dress History. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

All photos provided by the reviewer.

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Fashion-Focused Digital Resources: The British Newspaper Archive

The British Newspaper Archive is a new partnership between The British Library and Findmypast, making millions of pages of British newspapers available online to the public for the first time. The database includes publications dating back to the eighteenth century and spanning all of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (both Northern and the Republic).

While the tally on the home page currently stands at over 10 million, there are plans to digitize up to 40 million pages of newspaper from the British Library’s collection over the next ten years, making the collection available to a much larger audience and saving hours of time spent hunched over a microfilm reader.

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The archive is accessed through a paid subscription service (use the code MAR15 to get one month’s access for only £1). After signing up for an account, researchers can create folders to organize bookmarked pages. The website will also save your viewing history and search history – a feature that allows you to easily revisit a previous session’s research or go back to find that one page you forgot to reference.

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In addition to the main news articles, researchers may discover valuable information in the family notices, advertisements and illustrations also found within each newspaper. The transcription of the article text is often not 100% accurate, which can make researching a bit difficult, but there is an option to amend text within the record – allowing researchers to aid in article transcription accuracy. Within the page viewer, the search keyword is highlighted and zoomed in upon for easier reading. Full pages of every newspaper can be printed or downloaded as PDF files, although the images are usually not of a very high resolution. I found it easier to take screenshots of each result I wanted to keep for reference if the article was small, or transcribe excerpts that interested me in longer articles.

Out of curiosity about the city where I am currently based, I conducted a quick search for the keyword ‘fashion’ in the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette between 1900 and 1919. The results included several interesting articles, often sensational pieces decrying the frivolity of fashion. In addition, there are many local wedding announcements with reference to the bride’s dress, as well as shorter dispatches from the larger world of fashion – a short announcement of the wartime closure of the House of Worth’s London premises, for example, in 1915.

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‘Worth’s London House to Close – The announcement is made today that Worth, of Paris, the famous dressmaker, has decided to close his London establishment in Hanover square, owing to the war. Nearly two hundred employees, most of whom are quite unsuited to the making of war munitions, will be thrown out of work, but will be granted “indemnities” to tide them over financial difficulties. The decision has been a heavy blow to the workers, many of the girls having spent a number of years in the service of the firm. Some of the women had even brought their families from Paris, and had settled, as they thought, for life in England. Two of the brothers Worth are serving their country at the front, one at the Dardanelles.’ – Bath Chronicle, August 14, 1915, page 6.

A small article like this at the very bottom corner of the August 14, 1915 edition of the newspaper may seem insignificant and be easily missed, but it does provide some human context to an event that is often given one sentence in fashion history texts. This small article has now got me thinking about researching Parisian dressmakers and seamstresses living and working abroad for couturiers in the foreign outposts…

Do you know of any fashion-focused digital resources that you would like to see covered by Michelle or myself for this column? We welcome your comments below.

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Domestic Affairs: High Style in San Francisco

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If I didn’t know better, I would claim that someone at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco knows that March is my birthday month. Not only did Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland open at the deYoung at the beginning of the month — institutions I visited frequently while earning my master’s degree in Edinburgh — but High Style: The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection opened a week and a half ago at the Legion of Honor. I was lucky enough to visit on Saturday as part of a Costume Society of America, Western Region event.

I had been aware of the wealth that is the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, even while a graduate student new to the field. This speaks to the magnitude of the collection, that even in cold Edinburgh with the Victoria & Albert a four-hour train ride away, I was avidly following the Brooklyn Museum-Metropolitan Museum of Art costume collection merger. Not that I need tell anyone reading this blog that this is an incredible collection. That being said, I was extremely keen to see High Style, since as a California resident I had no idea when I would have such an opportunity again.

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The exhibition was extremely popular, as fashion and costume exhibitions are wont to be, with a hugely diverse audience. The exhibition moves to a certain extent through decades which gives a sense of continuity and impressions of a general aesthetic for each era from 1900 to the 1980s. This was an intriguing background for the clothing of the visitors who might be “old” or “young” (both being relative terms), from hipsters to well, anyone and everyone else. To me, this diversity speaks to the universal appeal fashion exhibitions have to the public, especially when they are as well done as this one.

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I went through the exhibition twice. Once with my ‘Worn Through Managing Editor’ cap on, the other as myself — because it was such an amazing exhibition. Having purchased and looked through the catalogue after these two walkthroughs, it became very apparent that the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) selected only a small portion of the collection available to them. This was clearly both purposefully and masterfully done. While the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century historian in me is a bit sad that I did not get to drool to the side of the garments from those eras, I was extremely impressed by this exhibition, and surprised to be.

Considering the wealth of talent in the Bay Area, the FAMSF museums often fall short in the exhibition design department. There is a lot of stepping on toes, nearly colliding with other patrons, and looking lost as you look for the next audiotour track number — if you are using an audiotour — because where you are supposed to go next is anything but clear. This may be a personal quirk of mine, but the flow of an exhibition’s layout and design is something that I am always hypercritical of when I am visiting exhibitions. Even when I enjoy an exhibition, I can feel myself tut-tutting at the layout in the back of my mind if it is very noticeably vague. I don’t want to be distracted by the art because I’ve just nearly — or possibly not “just nearly” — collided with another visitor. This is possibly unfair — one of those “museum insiders make the worst museum visitors” instances – since I am fully aware that the museums are often left adapting spaces that are not ideal, but it is still something that needles me. That being said, High Style is beautifully laid out and uses the temporary exhibition space in the Legion of Honor’s basement to perfection.

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The FAMSF selections as I said take full advantage of the catalogue offered them by the Brooklyn Museum, but to tell a story they wish to tell. The story they chose is the story of haute couture and high fashion from 1900 through 1980s. While the first arresting gowns are evening and presentation gowns of the 1920s — who can object to a little glitter to start off an excellent exhibition — the museum expertly uses its awkward exhibition space to give patrons a crash course in fashion history. We begin with the heyday of haute couture, with gowns by Doucet and Worth from 1900 to circa 1913. This careful, meticulous, visual lecture in both haute couture history and the history of 20th-century fashion was so well done that I was not limited to just my fellow Costume Society of America members for pleasant interchanges, instead I had the unusual experience of connecting with several other visitors — virtual strangers — but also the gallery attendants and other museum employees about the garments, their construction, and which were our favorites.

As you can see in my photo above, which shows the first group of gowns, the excellence of curation in these three gowns properly, and as completely as possible, shows the evolution in silhouettes from 1900 until the eve of the First World War. There is also the subtle detail, elegance, and exquisite workmanship that illustrates in a way no wall panel or catalogue could the expertise that goes into the creation of an haute couture garment.

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From these three, the exhibition led visitors into what I have always thought of as an awkward, random room in the temporary exhibition space. You go into it, you can even exit from it, but it often disrupts the flow of the exhibition even when it’s not intended to. For High Style FAMSF made it what I think of as the “Accessories Room.” It was in this awkward space that the millinery and the glorious shoes and shoe prototypes were displayed. Again, this was brilliant exhibition planning because these objects were extremely interesting — you can see a fashion student in my photo below sketching one of them — but they didn’t quite fit anywhere else in the exhibition. And since so many of them were from the period between 1900 and 1930 that the entrance room focused on, the time frame fit: this is how (posh) people bought shoes before online shopping or chain and department stores. This is something that has long interested me: how fashion was disseminated and consumed in previous eras, so to have the design and marketing of shoes so prominently explored was absolutely wonderful.

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As you exit the room the mastery of the topic becomes particularly clear to those of us “in the know.” Instead of leaping straight into the 1920s, which you couldn’t blame the museum for doing with the post-Gatsby/Downton Abbey Season 5 fever upon many visitors, you are instead treated to four mannequins in Liberty & Co. and Callot Souers garments, all dating from 1900 t0 circa 1913. This is pure brilliance on the part of the exhibition. Through seven mannequins the exhibition managed to show the breadth — including the socio-political issues — of the pre-WWI fashions without drawing so much attention to the topic that it became the only subject of the display. This may or may not have been the point at which my mother texted me to “STOP” sending her pictures because the 1910s are her favorite era and she hasn’t had a chance to visit the exhibition, yet. I neither confirm nor deny anything.

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As you can guess, the exhibition followed a strict chronology from this point on. There were the gorgeous 1920s evening and presentation gowns from the beginning to peruse again — viewing the amazing detail at the backs — as well as other glamorous garments from the era and one day dress that was arresting in its exquisite, delicate, simplicity amidst the glitter and embroidery.

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The next section was suitably “shocking.” I won’t apologise for the pun. The next five garments and three pieces of jewellery were all dedicated to the eclectic brilliance that was Elsa Schiaparelli. There isn’t much need to explain further, since I’m sure most if not all readers of this blog already know Schiap’s contributions to fashion history. What I will say is that seeing Schiaparelli pieces in person was a bit jaw-dropping as someone who had only ever seen them in photographs until Saturday.

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I was most amazed, being able to see them in person, by the detail on Schiaparelli’s accessories. Only three necklaces were featured, but those that featured leaves were beautifully articulated to properly mimic the imperfections of color you often find in leaves. This again underlined what the true meaning of haute couture meant, even if it was executed with a sense of art and whimsy.

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I was stopped dead in my tracks, however, by a Madame Grés and a Madeleine Vionnet gown in the same display. These two women have long been my favorite French designers. So, to see not one, but two gowns by each woman was nothing short of a dress historian’s dream come true.

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The rest of the room rather naturally focused on post-World War II European fashion. Again, through excellent curation, FAMSF selected pieces from Dior, Givenchy, Balenciaga (swoon), Yves Saint Laurent (swoon again), and 1960s Chanel to show the breadth of silhouette, technique and elegance that Europe revitalized after the depravations of World War II.

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It was from here that the exhibition diverged into American fashion design and couture. This was a brilliant contradiction — if you will — in style. As you enter (as you can see below), the main image is that of austere, classical elegance, a logical extenuation of the constraint seen in the post-WWII European fashions. But as you move about the room, first behind you and then in a counter-clockwise path you notice the differences: American freedom but innovation in shape, and overwhelmingly the sense of fun especially as concerns use of fabric and color. This is not discussed in the wall texts or tombstones at all, it is simply a visual impact that speaks for itself.

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The exhibition ended as fabulously as it had begun, with Charles James. Again, this was not simply a catalogue of James’s accomplishments but a true exploration of his genius. It emphasized that while American fashion can be trendy, ridiculous, and fun, that does not preclude elegance. Featured was a wide array from James’s career, from muslins for his most famous dress silhouettes beside the actual finished garments, to trouser skirt-suits for women who married into the Hearst family and his famous clover-leaf ball gowns.

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Even more spectacularly, the final “room,” if you will, was a “design studio” that featured some of James’s most complex designs below which were animated screens that dissected and demonstrated how the garments were constructed. I thought this was a phenomenal way to end the exhibition, which had emphasized the craftsmanship and couture, to show how much engineering and ability went into these incredible gowns which can only be described as works of art.

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As you exit the exhibition to enter the gift shop (an evil place full of temptation), the walls are lined with original Charles James design sketches. Having done my master’s internship working with a collection of works on paper, this seemed the ideal way to end such a phenomenal exhibition.

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The exhibition was unsurprising as a dress historian. It was “simple” in that it merely followed the trajectory of high fashion from 1900 through to the 1980s. However, the execution was absolutely marvellous, and I have to confess it was wonderful to simply go through an exhibition without having my “critic” hat on, or keen to learn anything earth-shatteringly new, but simply to admire the garments and the execution for what they were: the very reason I became a dress historian.

Have you seen High Style? What were your thoughts? Do you have any comments or critiques to offer? If so, please feel free to agree or disagree with me in the comments below! And if you know of any upcoming exhibitions or events happening in your area, please feel free to mention them or to email me so that I can feature them in my next column!

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You Should Be Reading: Fashion Blogging and Vlogging

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1. Titton, Monica. ‘Fashionable Personae: Self-Identity and Enactments of Fashion Narratives in Fashion Blogs.’ Fashion Theory 19(2), 201-220.

This article scrutinizes the practices and strategies mobilized by fashion bloggers in the construction of a subject position which is embedded in established fashion narratives and based on references to the self and self-representation. Fashion blogs are discussed as cultural artifacts which revolve around reflexive identity politics in contention with embodied techniques of self-fashioning and dress practices. Fashion bloggers produce fashion media partly based on the enactment of their own self-identity in relation to dress practices and on their incorporation of knowledge of fashion media and pop culture imagery. Because of this oscillation between individual dress practices and collective fashion narratives, fashion blogs raise issues about the way in which fashion media relate to self-identity. Based on empirical research with qualitative methods using a grounded theory approach, this article discusses a construct of subjectivity labeled as “fashionable persona.” The “fashionable persona” is understood as a situated, narrative, and performative character developed by bloggers specifically for their blogs that is anchored simultaneously in the blogger’s self-identity and in the enactment of collective cultural narratives. Three dimensions in the enactment and construction of “fashionable personae” are discussed: the discursive construction, the bodily enactment, and the self-actualization of fashion bloggers as economic subjects. – Full Article Abstract

2. Findlay, Rosie. ‘The Short, Passionate, and Close-Knit History of Personal Style Blogging.’ Fashion Theory 19(2), 157-178.

Most media histories of style blogging commence their narrative in 2009, at the moment when a select few fashion and personal style bloggers were invited to sit front row at a number of shows on the Spring/Summer Ready-to-Wear “Fashion Month” schedule. Yet that moment, symbolic of the “arrival” of fashion bloggers in the industry (albeit a partial and contested one), was precipitated by years of fashion blogging. This developmental period has not yet been mapped. This article, then, presents a historical narrative tracing the development of personal style blogging through the archive. It engages with the earliest independent fashion blogs (which predated distinct subgenres of fashion blogging) to map how they, along with early digital and print media, influenced and led to the emergence of personal style blogging as a distinct subgenre of the wider fashion blogosphere. I draw on oral history from bloggers as well as the archives of their (and other) blogs, as well as the digital archive of early fashion websites, online articles, and blogposts from current style blogs. I also draw on prior studies of personal style blogging by Rocamora and Luvaas, among others, as well as work by Lévi-Strauss and Butler, to contextualize this discussion. – Full Article Abstract

3. Christofer, Pihl. ‘Brands, Community and Style: Exploring Linking Value in Fashion Blogging.’ Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management 18(1), 3-19.

By using the concept of style, the purpose of this paper is to elaborate on the notion of brand community. More specifically, it seeks to explore how style can function as a linking value in forms of communities centred on brands that emerge within the empirical context of fashion and social media. A netnography of the content produced by 18 fashion bloggers in Sweden was conducted. Content analysis of this material was used to map how consumption objects, in terms of fashion brands, were integrated in activities taking place on blogs, and through these processes, acted as a linking value for community members. This paper demonstrates how fashion bloggers, together with their readers, constitute a form of community centred on style. It also shows how fashion bloggers, by combining and assembling fashion brands and products, articulate and express different style sets, and how they, together with their followers, engage in activities connected to these style ideals. As this study has been empirically limited to a Swedish setting, future research would benefit from findings of international expressions of communities of style. Based on this study, strategies for managing communities of style is suggested to represent a potential source of competitive advantage for fashion firms. In the context of the conceptual discussion about what brings members of communities together, this study provides evidence of how style can function as a linking value in the setting of consumer communities that emerge within the boundaries of fashion and social media. – Full Article Abstract

See also: i-D Magazine’s recent series How the Internet Changed Fashion featuring interviews with some of today’s most popular fashion vloggers, as well as longer think pieces exploring the influence of vlogging and social media on fashion.

Image Credit: GirlTalkHQ

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CFP: MAAM 2015 Annual Conference

MAAM 2015 Annual Conference: Building Communities: Embracing Diversity in All We Do

Proposals due: April 2, 2015
Conference held: October 21-23, 2015

Philadelphia, PA

Call for Proposals!

Join MAAM in Philadelphia this October as we discuss Building Communities: Embracing Diversity in All We Do. We invite you to contribute to the dialogue with a conference session proposal. Please consider a submitting a proposal on one of the following Building Communities topics:

  • Creating pathways for new audiences
  • Engaging community members
  • Reflecting diversity in boards, staff, programming, collections, and/or outreach
  • Accessing new fiscal resources
  • Social justice issues in museums

The annual meeting is the perfect opportunity to introduce theoretical or philosophical frameworks that explore daily issues shared by all. Sessions should present differing perspectives that constructively embrace controversy, enliven the session, and reflect the conference theme. You do not need to be the “expert” to propose or organize a session. Vendors are also welcome to submit proposals, but all panels should include at least one museum professional. The MAAM Program Committee, comprising recognized museum professionals, will review all proposals. Click here to download the 2015 Call for Proposals.

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On Teaching fashion: Pattern Cutting, where to start?

On my Masters course I became fascinated by Pattern Cutting and how a high level of knowledge in this discipline is also crucial in the design development process. I am fascinated by how accuracy in shape lines can result in creativity and innovation when a garment is constructed. On my Bodywear specific course it was crucial to be constantly accurate as it was re-enforced to us that millimetres of error here and there could result in completely different size garments. I also extended my skills during my study to including Tailoring, where I loved the structured accuracy in shape and silhouette.

When you began your Fashion education how easily did pattern cutting come to you?

In my teaching career I have approached pattern cutting in many different ways- some more successful than others. When I have a mix of students with a breathe of previous skills, I find it a good basic level to introduce them to block templates. So students understand the shape, markings and core lines compared where they fall on the body. I allow learners to draw around given blocks, meticulously copy and understand all the markings into a version of their own. I then teach how to add seam allowance, in order for learners to gain the knowledge of the difference and purposes between patterns and blocks. Next I guideall the students through drawing the basic block onto calico and sewing this together, a process introduced to me as a French block. This is also a great time to cover a sewing machine induction and a baseline assessment of core abilities.This block is then pinned to the mannequin and students can draw their individual developed design onto the form in 3D. It is very important to draw all of the technical features from the paper pattern onto the calico.

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As next I ask students to cut up their fabric block into the individual panels of their design then we lay these back down onto spot and cross paper to create patterns. If students were new to this area of fashion I would encourage basic style lines and minimal seams, and those who are more confident they could create a more advanced design, therefore every member of the class makes recognisable progression.

Modelling and draping on the stand are good methods for students who could be struggling with imagining their designs on 2D paper and are more visual in their creativity. This therefore allows the individual to tape a design to the stand and develop the shapes using fabric. This will then need to be transferred to paper, alike the French block method.

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This term I have introduced learning to read and use patterns very smoothly, where students were all given the same pattern and taught how to make the same garment. I have teamed up with the Dance department to make 30 tunics and 30 wrap skirts. This works very well and allows all studentsto progress at their individual levels, and progress equally and independently from their previous experiences. I have seen other colleagues at lower levels use this method, where all students were given a basic bustier pattern to construct, but were given free rein into the surface decoration.

For more advanced learning, my second year students’ are currently making an individual dancewear outfit each from their design projects. Yes everyone needs a variety of different basic blocks to begin, so a good store is crucial! But students soon remembered their knowledge learnt in the first year of their course, which allows time for me to work with the learners one to one. Also when you are working in this individual manner- slowly you will see peer teaching appear, and also student independent investigations as they experiment and come to conclusions about how they could create their ideas. More independent learners are often more adaptable to experimentations, referring to pattern cutting books (I always have a stash in my room) or looking for tutorials online to help guide them in their learning.

What methods do you have to approach pattern cutting with large groups? Do you allow students free rein from the beginning? Or do you teach class core skills activities?

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