In The Language of Clothes, the author Alison Lurie suggests that a bride’s preference for a one off all white outfit can be what the earlier costume commentator Prudence Glynn describes as wanting on the one hand “one marvelous, escapist, romantic moment in an otherwise drab life” or, on the other “by wearing archaic dress she is stating her unconscious belief that the ceremony itself is archaic.”
Display featuring the pink background and in the foreground, an ensemble of accessories dating from the early to mid 19th century. www.adorngirl.com
Wedding Dresses 1775-2014, the latest exhibition in the V&A’s wonderful Fashion Galleries, certainly appears to embrace this perceived romance and escapism of what to wear on the special day with its emphasis on a ‘western wedding style’, predominantly British, in sartorial form. Upon entering the exhibition, the visitor finds herself looking at a timeline of white dresses, displayed against pink walls, with curvy fonts highlighting the wonder of weddings as expressed by a range of contemporary cultural commentators. Once on the upper gallery, it is possible to see huge projections of photographs showing the more current dresses on their owners, in-situ, replete with soft focus edges and flowery transitions. This exhibition holds to the ideals associated with a particular normative notion of femininity, where weddings are a bride’s ultimate dream rather than a complex socio-cultural event where ideas and values are negotiated through dress.
Jenny Bishop in Ian Stuart wedding dress, with the exhibition in the background. Victoria & Albert Museum.
Despite there being several outfits on display that make reference to different religious systems, local traditions and economic groups, these often felt like a novel footnote to the main body of text rather than a full paragraph or chapter. The primacy of the ‘western wedding style’ meant that it was hard for me to place experiences such as the double wedding of my Trinidadian neighbour, who celebrated her nuptials in both a Hindi and Christian ceremony, into this exhibition. Similarly, I struggled to find examples of the angst experienced by many brides to be when it comes to finding the one dress, knowing that it is likely not to be worn again. I recall one friend who decided to overcome this challenge by buying a dress for 99p on Ebay while another gave herself only one day to find something to wear, recounting the experience as if it was had been a prison sentence.
Monica Maurice’s red wedding dress, 1938. Victoria & Albert Museum
So, for me, the most interesting outfits were those that were more idiosyncratic because they went some way to demonstrating the complex socio-cultural negotiations that take place around weddings. Take Monica Maurice, for instance. The first woman to become a member of the Association of Mining Electrical Engineers in 1938 and who decided to wear red for her wedding of the same year to celebrate her love of the colour. Or Elizabeth King, who had her dress made from furnishing fabric in 1941 as a way to circumvent clothing rations. More recently, imagine the moment when Christopher Breward and his partner James Brook wore suits for their civil partnership in 2006. I also enjoyed the dress worn by Lisa Butcher in 1992, whose literal baring caused her husband to pass judgment on the appropriacy of bridalwear at a wedding.
Suit worn by Christopher Breward in 2006 for his civil partnership with James Brook. Victoria & Albert Museum.
I thought the arrangement and presentation of the dress worn by Margaret Whigham in 1933 was excellent because it was possible to acknowledge the context more vividly with the inclusion of Pathe footage documenting the event. It also provided an early example of the way in which the white one off costume could be completely removed from fashionable dress, which in this case meant having a spectacularly huge train.
I appreciated those outfits where additional contextual information was present, which included photographs, accessories, design sketches and wedding invitations. It was fascinating to spot a napkin souvenir created by Maud Cecil for her wedding in 1927, drawing our attention to the inherent ephemerality of nuptial occasions. It was also interesting to note that there was very little jewelry on display despite the fact that this can often play an important role in nuptial ceremonies.
Wedding dress designed by Norman Hartnell and worn by Margaret Whigham in 1933. Victoria and Albert Museum
Yet, overall, I found that the chronological approach to this exhibition made for quite a dull experience. Much of the label descriptions were given over to aesthetic references with very little explanation, intimating an art historical approach to understanding objects where prior knowledge is assumed. I find this quite irritating because it not only makes information appear esoteric but it fails to engage the visitor in a more critical dialogue with the objects on view. Interestingly, the aim of Wedding Dresses 1775- 2014 is to demonstrate how fashion has impacted upon the design of wedding dresses from a historical perspective yet in doing so, the one off all white outfit becomes increasingly fetishlike as it moves further away from its various spatial and temporal locations.
I think the exhibition could have extended to asking more reflective questions around the roles and responsibilities of those involved in a wedding. For instance, what do a bride and groom actually do in a wedding? How and why? What other factors play a part in wedding practices? What impact might this have upon their choice of dress?
Ending on a more positive note, the accompanying exhibition blog is very informative because, through curatorial narrative, the nuances of wedding dress design and wear are given more space as the curators move in and out of people’s lives through the chosen objects, forcing them to consider their relationships in a more immediate way than in the actual exhibition. This is most vividly realized when the curators meet with the designer Gareth Pugh and Kate Shillingford, fashion editor of Another Magazine to discuss how she wore his dress on her wedding day. The curator observes how intimate the relationship is between the designer and the client in their negotiation of specific details. I wonder if the exhibition could have benefited from having observations like this or even recordings of those who wore the garments recounting their experiences included as an audio guide to accompany the visitor.
Alison Lurie (1981) The Language of Clothes London, Heinemann
This week’s Reading column focuses on the interplay of fashion and fantasy, paying particular attention to the ways in which fashion presents a specific sort of fantasy world for the viewer and consumer. By carefully choosing the narrative, the fashion industry and media have the ability to promote a fantasy world for the consumer (either through the pages of a magazine or, more directly, through the purchasing of the clothes themselves). What sorts of fantasies are being promoted to audiences now? And why does this matter? These questions and more are answered in the three articles below. Enjoy!
1. Barry, B. (2014). Selling whose dream? A taxonomy of aspiration in fashion imagery. Fashion, Style & Popular Culture, 1(2), 175-192.
Scholars and practitioners assume that women aspire to fashion photographs of idealized models. It is unknown, however, what makes a fashion image aspirational because previous researchers have not explored the various dimensions that evoke this concept. In this article, the author shares the development of a taxonomy that explains the evaluative criteria and image elements that elicit aspiration in fashion photographs based on data gathered in focus groups with 100 women. Findings reveal that women aspire to a fashion image according to their evaluations that it is honest, empowering and socially responsible. The models, creative direction and visual cues in the image trigger these three aspirational criteria. The author’s research contributes the first taxonomy of aspiration in fashion photographs and to the enhancement of knowledge about consumer engagement with images. Industry professionals are encouraged to incorporate promotional photographs into their corporate social responsibility agenda and produce imagery that represents women’s diverse beauty and character alongside glamour and artistry. – Paraphrased Article Abstract
2. Bonadio, M. C. (2014). Brazilian fashion and the ‘exotic’. International Journal of Fashion Studies, 1(1), 57-74.
The construction of an exoticism associated with diverse elements of Brazilian cultural identities is a subject that has been widely investigated in several studies. Although much of what one sees and does in Brazilian fashion is characterized by images of exoticism, there has been little reflection on how it has become exotic. And yet, is this something that is just exotic to ‘others’ or also to Brazilians? Do Brazilians also understand themselves as such? In this article, the author seeks possible answers to these questions by outlining a brief history of the way the visual identity of Brazilian fashion has been created, by examining the role of the textile industry and cultural institutions (in particular the São Paulo Museum of Art) in the preparation of this visual understanding. – Paraphrased Article Abstract
3. Huppatz, D. J., & Manlow, V. (2014). Producing and consuming American mythologies: Branding in mass market fashion firms. Global Fashion Brands: Style, Luxury & History, 1(1), 23-40.
The majority of contemporary fashion encompasses a vast middle ground comprised of popular and influential brands whose designs are neither haute couture nor trendy. These mass-market brands rely on intensive marketing and advertising to evoke ideals of an American national identity and lifestyle. In this article, we employ a holistic analysis of Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger’s lifestyle branding strategies aimed at creating coherent American mythologies, Gap, J. Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister’s less coherent approach and American Apparel’s new ‘authenticity’ in its portrayal of American ideals. In their respective branding strategies, each of the brands constructs a hyperreal American world based on appearances and associations, in which contradictory ideologies are conflated and consumed by global audiences. The companies produce coherent systems of signification through advertising and promotional strategies in which consumers are invited to become a part of their mythological constructs. Through the kaleidoscopic lens of the production-branding-consumption cycle, an examination of several mass-market brands exposes variations on American national identity and differing responses to broader cultural and political changes over the last four decades. – Full Article Abstract
Image Credit: stellafluorescent.blogspot.com
This collection will focus on the many ways in which various sexual practices are framed, represented, and commodified as aberrant, transgressive, or non-normative in popular culture. Embracing a fluid and dynamic definition of the term “kink” as sharing a continuum with “normal” sexual behavior, this collection of 15-20 chapters will explore the intersection of sexuality, cultural norms, and power through focused examination of popular representations of and discourses surrounding kink.
Chapters are sought from scholars who study, encounter, and/or teach artifacts, texts, and issues related to kink, from fields including (but not limited to) gender/queer studies, film and media studies, literature, performance studies, sociology, fashion and design, and cultural history. Possible essay/chapter topics might include, but are not limited to:
- Kink throughout history: Victorian erotica, “medical” literature, stag films.
- The “mainstreaming” of kink – fashion and advertising.
- The historical relationship between kink and queerness/homosexuality
- Kink and leather: representations of dominance and submission
- Kink and representations of trans culture and bodies
- The sideshow: watching kink/voyeurism
- Kink and public/private performance of sex (orgies, parties, swinging, webcast/amateur porn, etc)
- Kink and feminism: demonization and sex-shaming trends
- Kink and sex work: “professional” kink
- Representations of kink, pain and “extreme” lifestyles
- Kink and legal issues (secrecy, surveillance, blackmail, etc.)
- Kink and trends in mainstream and alternative pornography
- Kink in popular/alternative music
- Kink and race/nationality/ethnicity/religion
- Kink in the classroom: the pedagogy of kink
Please submit proposals of approximately 500 words to email@example.com.
Initial deadline to meet first publishing proposal is July 15, 2014.
Please include a brief c.v. or bio which includes information about relevant research, experience, or previous publications. We welcome submissions from independent and early career scholars or others with specific related experience or expertise.
Proposals that approach the study of human sexuality from a variety of methodologies are encouraged, particularly those that are sex-positive and approach the study of this subject from a critical but non-judgmental perspective.
A student was telling me about a great Fashion History class she had where the teacher played a Jeopardy style game to help the students prepare for their upcoming test. She said that it was “so much fun and that if anybody had walked by” they would have thought that “something wrong was going on because people were laughing and standing up out of their chairs and yelling out answers”. She enjoyed this and she retained information so she was well prepared for her test.
This was a lecture-based class where students usually listen and don’t often participate. These types of classroom games are useful when the subject demands memorization and understanding new terminology. Classes such as Apparel Evaluation are a great example where these games are useful, as students have to memorize ASTM sewing codes, different machinery used in apparel manufacturing, among other information. Adding the fun, stress free feeling of a game helps students relax and will get all the students to participate, so you are able to see who is prepared and who still has studying to do. It also takes time to create these games. Although most work can be done with computer software and using cut & paste to transfer your lecture information to index cards, it still takes a few hours to complete these games. I have wanted to create an online game for some of my courses but have not had the time to work on that yet.
I taught a Textiles laboratory class that is very term heavy and it is usually tough for students since there is so much memorization. To prepare for the midterm exam, I played a Textiles card game that was created by a TA where students broke up into groups and scored points for each correct answer. I was told by another teacher that I could bring candy and hand it out when they got a correct answer but I didn’t want to do that. At first my students were more annoyed than excited at playing this game. But after we started playing, they began to have fun. They saw what information they already knew and what they needed to work on. They also heard advice on how to recognize a twill weave or identifying a roller print vs. a screen print from their classmates. It was nice to see the groups working together and sharing their study tips. Towards the end of the class a student did ask me “ what does the winner get?” My answer was “the reassurance that you will do well on your test.”
Have you ever played any classroom games to help your students learn or retain information? Do you think it is worth the time?
Post it in the comments below. I would love to hear from you.
It looks like it will be a truly wonderful summer for fashion exhibitions!
As we were informed by Kristen of the Newport Restoration Foundation the last time I did an event roll call, there is a small but wonderful exhibition at the Foundation looking at the fashion of tobacco heiress, Doris Duke, called No Rules: The Personal Style of Doris Duke.
Worn Through’s Jill Morena started a wonderful series of posts yesterday on the Charles James exhibition, A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James, at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. The exhibition closes September 7, and be sure to read Jill’s post from yesterday and to look for her next installment!
In Los Angeles, the FIDM Museum just opened an exhibition today of rare Hollywood costume sketches from the collection of Christian Esquevin, author of Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label, called Designing Hollywood: Sketches from the Christian Esquevin Collection, which will be open until November 1. Opening later this month (June 26) at their Orange County campus will be a second exhibition, International Inspiration: The Donald and Joan Damask Collection, featuring a recent donation of over 75 pieces of vintage clothing and world dress, objects by Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, and theatrical designs by Erté. International Inspiration also closes November 1, and look for my review in September or October after I make the trek down to Orange County.
At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), I am eagerly anticipating the opening of Treasures from Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392 – 1910 at the end of this month (June 29), and even more so, Kimono for a Modern Age which opens on July 5. Did any of you get to see Treasures from Korea in Philadelphia?
All of this on top of Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the CSA fortieth anniversary symposium last week, Charles James at the Met, Draped Down at the Studio Museum in Harlem (check out the Domestic Affairs guest post from the creator and curator, Monique Long from last week), and many more.
Do you, like Kristen, have an exhibition in your institution or at one nearby? Have you been to any of these exhibitions mentioned? What did you think? Did you go to CSA National which I unfortunately had to miss this year? What did you think?
Please feel free to share exhibition and event announcements in the comments below, or to email me with details. I’d also love to hear about your experiences at any of these events or any I might have missed. Please share your experience in the comments!
Opening image: 2002.367 Circus Skirt from the Doris Duke exhibition at the Newport Restoration Foundation
Photos of James garments in the conservation studio at The Menil Collection, for the exhibition, A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James
Photo by Jill Morena
With all eyes and ears on the Charles James exhibition at The Costume Institute, I’d like to draw your attention to a more modestly sized, but no less intriguing and compelling, presentation of James’s work at The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James (which takes its title from a quote by James’s friend, photographer Bill Cunningham, describing the transformative space between the body and the structure of James’s garments) will be on view from May 31-September 7, 2014 and will focus on the collaborations between James and the de Menils, John and Dominique.
If you’re wondering if the exhibition was planned to coincide with the Met exhibition, the answer is no–both projects were planned independently. And yet it proved to be a happy coincidence that both exhibitions are concurrent. For a panel discussion moderated by exhibition curator Susan Sutton, scheduled during the evening of the opening day, Costume Institute curator in charge Harold Koda shared his insights on James along with creative consultant Lady Amanda Harlech and de Menil biographer William Middleton–each bringing their own unique perspective to the unparalleled talents of James and his creative intersections with the de Menils.
For readers unfamiliar with the de Menils, this fascinating couple made an extraordinary impact on the Houston arts scene and beyond from the 1940s onward, and were instrumental in transforming Houston into an international destination for modern and contemporary art. The de Menils and their children left the chaos of World War II Europe and eventually settled in Texas from Paris, France. Once in Houston, they continued to build an impressive collection of modern art, forged strong connections with artists, civil rights activists and politicians, and local universities, and fervently supported those who shared their progressive outlook on politics, art, and spiritualism. I won’t go into too many details of the de Menil biography here, but many overviews of their life, accomplishments, and endeavors can readily be found online (see sources below), and also through the publication, Art and Activism, which describes their many projects.
North facing facade of The Menil Collection
Photo by Jill Morena
John de Menil, the more extroverted of the couple and most focused on perfection and quality in clothing and appearance (as opposed to the more introverted and pragmatic Dominique), encouraged the couturier/client relationship between Dominique and James. The couple recognized the innovation and unusual beauty of James’s creations and accepted and negotiated what is so often described as James’s “mercurial” or “difficult” personality, acknowledging this as part of the genius that gives birth to such meticulously considered and truly unique creations. The de Menils themselves had very strong personalities and ideas, complete dedication to the projects they pursued, and very high standards and parameters concerning quality in artistic creation. In this sense, James had found a match in the principled and strong-willed Dominique and John de Menil.
In the 1980s, following her husband’s death in 1971, Dominique de Menil decided to create a public home for their astounding and highly personal modern art collection that had since outgrown the space of their private home. The private house, designed and completed by architect Philip Johnson in 1950, with interiors and furniture designed by James (his only commission of this kind), is as much a part of A Thin Wall of Air as is James’s clothing. The unique colors and shapes created by James for the de Menil home are present or strongly evoked in the galleries, and this helps visitors make connections between different media as well as shared artistic and aesthetic affinities.
The small size of the exhibition (three galleries, to be discussed in my next post) is in keeping with the overall ethos of the Menil museum as Dominique de Menil envisioned it–intimate, personal spaces filled with purposeful, focused objects–”where things can be seen on multiple levels, with a relationship made between the objects and the way they are presented”(Glueck 1986: 5), where a visitor would never experience “museum fatigue.”
A few weeks before the opening, I was fortunate to be able to meet with curator Susan Sutton during the remaining days of intense preparation for the show—painting gallery walls, finishing up mannequins, planning final placements. She generously spared her time to show me a sneak peek of the gallery plans and Dominique de Menil’s garments as they were being prepared for display. It was thrilling to be able to see a row of James coats, suits, and dresses up close. I had never seen one in person before this visit.
Charles James-designed garments formerly owned and worn by Dominique de Menil
Photo by Jill Morena
One question I was keen to ask Sutton was how Dominique de Menil’s voice comes through the clothes, besides the fact that they are perfectly tailored to her body. One important quality, Sutton noted, is Dominique’s modesty and practicality. She wasn’t a “ball gown” type of woman, and noted (rightly, I agree), that in photographs de Menil seems much less comfortable in a ball gown with floor-length frothy layers than in practical yet beautiful wool suits and calf-length dresses. Sutton and conservator Tae Smith noted that other versions of the “bustle gown” they had seen were usually strapless–James’s version for the sartorially pragmatic Dominique had shoulder straps.
Bustle gown worn by Dominique de Menil, being readied for display
Photo by Jill Morena
James designed for her a little over a decade (beginning in 1947), and Sutton and Smith discussed the opportunity to trace the changes in Dominique’s body and the process of becoming familiar with the particular and subtle idiosyncrasies and asymmetries of the body (that are common to us all), and which can only make themselves known to others when clothing is made specifically for a certain body over time. Although there were times when Sutton wondered, are these unusual seam placements or off-center closures due to Dominique’s body or is it James’s design? James preferred asymmetry, sometimes very subtle, in creating patterns and seams. William Middleton noted in the panel discussion that both he and Dominique had the confidence to create and wear, respectively, these off-center creations. Sutton said that when dressing the mannequins there was a tendency to want to gently coerce closures or seams and situate them to be more symmetrical or centered. I suppose that created a bit of a mystery–where does James end and Dominique begin?
Sutton and Smith felt that the use of “floating” forms, in which the body is strongly evoked but exterior limbs or other parts of the body are not constructed or seen, fit well with a presentation of garments within a fine arts museum, with the focus primarily on the garment as an art object (The Costume Institute has also used this presentation for James’s ball gowns).
Dress forms in the conservation studio, customized for each James garment
Photo by Jill Morena
This choice of display has been popular in the 21st century, particularly with the greater inclusion of exhibitions of clothing in art museums. I often think of this particular photograph of a Rei Kawakubo gown on the webpage for the Costume Council at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The “floating form” has its beauty and its limitations, such as those discussed by Hayley-Jane in her recent review of the Alaia exhibition in Paris.
The absent body is an element that is unavoidable, challenging, and sometimes vexing for the costume curator, and sometimes disappointing for the museum viewer. And yet Harold Koda expressed a very interesting observation about the “absent body” in the context of this exhibition: while he acknowledged an absence of de Menil’s specific body–or live presence–in the garment, he said, “I can still see the person.” Despite the “fine art” presentation of absent, “floating” bodies that tends to define garments as sculptures or architectural forms (and is certainly appropriate for a James creation), the presentation in the context of the Menil Collection grounded Dominique’s clothes in her individuality and the environment she and James created, whether through her physical person, her home, or through the objects that inspired them both.
An interesting thread that emerged throughout the panel discussion was the imagining of the act of wearing a James garment–entering the garment, moving in it–the exchange between the body and the person and the clothing. This sensation is somewhat addressed in the exhibition, which I’ll discuss in the next post. Lady Amanda Harlech expressed her desire to wear the James garments–“I want to try out what ['a thin wall of air'] feels like–what would be that dynamic?” What would it be like to experience simultaneous heaviness and lightness? Seeing the James garments up close myself, I could feel her frustration when she said, “I really wanted to try them on!”
Koda also recounted a story of a young teenager who was lucky enough to model a privately-owned James gown at the 1982 exhibition of James’s work at the Brooklyn Museum, The Genius of Charles James. He said the young woman summed up the experience of wearing the gown as “a lesson in beauty.” The dress, she said, is telling me how to stand and how I should walk. This recurring emphasis on embodiment and wear throughout the panel discussion was fascinating and refreshing–this is often not a focus in studies of fashion and clothing (and of course forbidden in the museum environment)–although this is changing, and has been consistently addressed by some scholars, such as Joanne Entwistle.
There are particular, subtle touches in the exhibition presentation that attempt to address, or come somewhat close to, the feeling of tactile sensation (which, as Juliana reminded us a few weeks ago, was an important element in the The Chicago History Museum’s 2011 exhibition, Charles James: Genius Reconstructed).
To give viewers an immediate impression of the interiors of the garment, the interiors of the floating forms were lined with the colors of James’s vibrant, often unusual contrasting linings. Satins were custom dyed to match James’s original selections. Swatches of the dyed fabric, seen at the lower right of the leading photograph of this post, were placed on the wall for ready reference and to match thread for sewing the material to the form. Although not a glimpse of the “original” lining (which may have been achieved through plexiglass mounts, for example), the decision to replicate the linings heightened the contrasting color, a sense of texture, and what it may feel like to wear the garment against your body. (Dominique de Menil inverted the expected conventions of dressing in more ways than one, based on what textures or sensations pleased her–she often wore her mink coat inside out).
I’ll end this post with one intriguing photograph of the exhibition galleries that invokes a Surrealist landscape–so appropriate as both James and the de Menils loved Surrealist art. I’ll discuss my impressions of this jewel of an exhibition in next month’s post.
Installation view of A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James
Photo by © Paul Hester/Hester + Hardaway
Sources cited and further reading:
Art and Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de Menil (2010). Helfenstein, Josef and Schipsi, Laureen (Eds.) Houston: The Menil Collection, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Browning, Dominique (1983 April). ‘What I Admire I Must Possess’. Texas Monthly.
Entwistle, Joanne (2007). Addressing the Body. Fashion Theory: A Reader. Malcom Barnard (Ed.) London and New York: Routledge.
Glueck, Grace (1986 May 18). The De Menil Family: The Medici of Modern Art. The New York Times.
Middleton, William (2004 June 3). A House That Rattled Texas Windows. The New York Times.
Recently the subject of color in antiquity has found a voice and has received considerable attention in scholarship. The reconstruction of ancient monuments and material culture has been one aspect of this discussion. Studies of race and color in the ancient world have also been considered. The subject of color, however, may also be considered from a global viewpoint that addresses world historical approaches and the complex interconnections that exist in trade. Areas such as Mesopotamia, India, Africa, China and the New World may shed light on the subject of color and its importance in ancient times.
This is a call for papers to be published as a collected volume on the subject of Color in Ancient Global History (3000 B.C.- 600 A.D.).
Papers that address the following topics will be considered:
Color as a geographical marker or trope
The manufacture and manipulation of color
The global effect of color production (e.g. Silk Road studies)
Color-term studies in literature, particularly from religious texts
Color and the senses
Color and food
Color and textiles
The volume will consist of 12-15 essays to be published in the next two years.
Deadline: July 15, 2014
Please submit a 250 word abstract with your C.V. to Rachael Goldman via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The first year I attended Central Saint Martins, I served as the student course representative for my program. Course reps were given the opportunity to attend faculty meetings and I thought this was a great chance to see the behind the scenes work at my school. The most memorable meeting for me focused on students with disabilities. We discussed both physical and learning disabilities and strategies for working with them. I learned so much and left feeling inspired. I no longer have any of the paperwork from that meeting but there are many articles, such as “The prevalence of dyslexia among art students” written by Ulrika Wolff* and Ingvar Lundberg, if you would like to read up on this subject.
My first year teaching at a university, I followed our syllabus requirements guide and included the disability office information with the short paragraph saying that any student with a disability has a right for reasonable accommodation. Over the years, I have had a few students approach me with a request for more time on tests and assignments. One semester I was given a sheet of paper from a student who told me that I had to sign it and return it to the office. I looked at the sheet and saw that the student had a disability that would require me to step in and provide aid when needed. There was a list of steps that I need to be prepared to do if a situation arose. A feeling of panic washed over me. This was quite serious and I couldn’t help thinking what if I made a mistake? When I went to drop off the paperwork I expressed my concern to the staff member and was told: “You don’t need to worry about this student. They have enough foresight to take care of themselves and contact the department and give you this paperwork. That means they will take care of themselves. The students you need to worry about are the ones that never report their problems.” I wondered how many unreported disabilities or even undiagnosed disabilities our student body may be struggling with.
According to the US Census Bureau, nearly 1 in 5 people have a disability in the U.S. which makes the possibility of having a disabled student in class fairly high. A physical disability may require more planning in a class room setting to accommodate a student, especially in a sewing lab. There is a small business in my town that hires people who are sight impaired to work in a sewing factory. The employees are trained to work in each station and learn how to sew and assemble a finished product. This business has a major contract with the government and is able to employ disabled people while teaching them a trade. I had hoped to tour this facility and report more information but was unable to arrange it.
The TedTalks lecture by Hugh Herr titled “The new bionics that let us run, climb, and dance”, is worth viewing if you haven’t already seen it. Herr says that a human being can never be viewed as “broken” by having a disability. He says, “It is our technology that is broken and inadequate”. The word disabled itself implies that something is not working. But with so many new technological advancements in prosthetics there is a major shift happening in the way we view disabled people in society. Our department recently held a lecture presenting current projects on special apparel for disabled people. Apparel is being redesigned with disabilities in mind such as clothing for a person that sits in a wheelchair all day. Clothing can be ergonomically designed in a way to avoid bulky seams that may put pressure on skin with poor circulation. Clothing that uses the same trends and style lines but redesigns closures is one area that is useful for disabled people as well as the aging population. Many of these design discoveries can be used for all people, disabled or not, and perhaps that is part of the positive change that is happening.
This is a topic that I will continue exploring and would love to write future posts addressing any new information I find. I am also interested in exploring the topic of teachers with disabilities, acquired either before of after they began teaching, and any struggles or strategies used in the classroom. Do you have any experiences with disabled students in the classroom that you would like to share? What are your experiences with teaching with a disability? Please leave your comments below. I look forward to hearing from you.
Many thanks to all those who contributed comments to my last post on academic dress. The stories about the librarian who challenged her colleagues to reconsider their sartorial presentation in light of public perceptions or the art teachers preference for particular high street clothing stores were both funny and moving, I was also reminded of just how potent dress is as an intended and unintended signifier of our socio-cultural identity. In addition, I realised that we often fail to inquire further about our relationship with dress as part of a constant construction of everyday appearance.
A self-portrait by my mum, June 2014
This weekend, I had the important task of supporting my mum, an artist, with her open studio. This not only involved making sure she was fed and watered but it also meant I had time to chat to her about what she wears as a working artist. While I wasn’t surprised to hear that this involves bulk buys of shirts from the Gap for those frequent moments when paint was spilled or ink splattered, I wasn’t expecting to hear that when it came to dressing for exhibitions, my mum is concerned not to overshadow her work by her choice of clothes. In other words, my mum didn’t want to her clothes to get in the way of people looking at her paintings. In sartorial terms, this tends towards a lot of black across minimal, angular cuts of cloth that will probably sound familiar to anyone who has ever been to an art gallery private view. For my mum, the practice of her work is not a feature when it comes to the representation of that work beyond her studio.
Francis Bacon in his 7 Reece Mews Studio, 1974. Photo: Michael Holtz © Michael Holtz Estate. Via Francis Bacon Estate/Facebook.
This is in direct contrast with the way in which the painter Francis Bacon literally impregnated his clothes with the materiality of his studio in an effort to signify his practice beyond the confines of his studio. In London: After A Fashion, Alastair O’Neil describes how Bacon was remembered for bringing a dry cleaned suit back to the studio and laying it out on a table covered in paint and detritus from his work. When a friend moved the suit in an effort to retain its cleanliness, Bacon retrieved the suit only to put it straight back on to the table. O’Neil draws upon Bourdieu’s observation that artists dress in such a way as to divest their appearance of assumed values. In this case, Bacon asserted his artistic identity by inverting the prevailing significance of a suit as something to be protected and maintained.
Yet, as one of my favourite writers about dress, Elizabeth Wilson, points out, my mum’s choice to wear black is also an attempt to oppose the status quo, because we no longer wear it for mourning and so any attempt to wear this colour is instantly at odds with its earlier significance. It is perhaps this fact that has allowed black to be subversively adopted by social groups in an effort to draw attention to economic, political and cultural concerns.
Wilson also suggests that where one’s profession concerns artistic or intellectual pursuits, dress conformity will always be secondary and this might explain why the dress of both artists and academics are often overlooked. It is assumed that clothing just appears upon these people because it has to, not because it wants to be there. However, as the example of my mum and Bacon show here, the way in which artists dress is not a natural phenomenon born out of a disinterest in fashionable dress but rather a carefully ‘raised’ identity that serves to distinguish the artist from both the production and practice of their work.
Lastly, there are so many good exhibitions taking place in London this month that I am having a hard time deciding which one to review for my next post! If you want to hear about any in particular, please do let me know via the comments below. The choices are Wedding Dresses 1775 -2014 (V&A), The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014 (V&A), Return of the Rudeboy (Somerset House) or Made in Mexico: The Rebozo in Art, Culture and Fashion (Fashion & Textiles Museum). I aim to see them all but be nice to know if there’s a preference for the first review!
Alastair O’Neil London: After A Fashion 2007 Reacktion Books (p111)
 Elizabeth Wilson Adorned in Dreams 2003 RUP (p189)
If there is one private institution I particularly appreciate in Paris, it is the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent. Despite being the treasure chest of the iconic fashion brand’s patrimonial archives, it is also a major cultural site that features eclectic exhibitions. Today’s display pays a dazzling tribute to Berber women. As I have said earlier on this site, I am completely uneducated when it comes to ethnic costumes but I surely am a profound admirer of traditional garments (having an Indian background myself, I dream of daring to wear a proper sari one day!). Thus when I visit such exhibitions, I come pure as snow with absolutely no knowledge nor do I relate to the pieces that have nothing to do with my own environment. Femmes Berbères du Maroc (Berber Women of Morocco) is at the crossroads of various implicit themes: acknowledging the audience with a traditional culture and craftsmanship, exhibiting exquisite jewellery and ethnic costumes as well as it refers to Yves Saint Laurent’s native background and lifelong fascination for North Africa.
Jewish Jewellery from Tahala – South West Morroco © Musée Berbère / photo Nicolas Mathéus
With much pedagogy, we are first introduced to the Berber culture: the display insists on the fact that women are the key holders of the Berber patrimony that they diffuse with the help of exclusively feminine crafts such as weaving, pottery and basketry. The eldest population of North Africa, Berbers occupy a territory that goes from Morocco’s Atlantic coast to eastern Egypt. Following informative maps, texts and photographies, we soon discover the traditional works created by the tribes’ women: baskets, practical everyday objects made with pottery techniques, woven textiles and carpets…illustrate the skills and decorative taste of the Berber society that clearly emphasizes simple geometrical patterns and earthy tones enhanced by strong blues. The adorning shapes mostly speak about fertility, the motives that go back to prehistoric art, protect against bad luck and are the promise of many childbirths and therefore, happiness. Woven capes bear sacred paroles: ‘ A woman who has made 40 carpets in her life is sure to go to heaven’, the saying affirms. The dim light creates a scared-like atmosphere that forces us to recognize the mysticism diffused by what could be considered as trivial objects.
After observing the creations of Berber women, come the garments and adornments with which they embellish themselves - displayed under a stellar dark sky (and along an oriental tune) that strongly evokes romantic and dramatic Arabian nights in the desert. The draped pieces of clothing are presented worn on white mannequins, on video screens that accent, with various close-ups,, their beauty and the complex technique of wrapping and assembling the textiles around the feminine body. An original curatorial choice that enables visitors to better comprehend the garments. Yet, surely the key objects of the exhibition would be the jewellery presented against majestic black busts. These intricate sculptural pieces made of silver and colourful polished coral or amber stones, as well as shells and coins that feature the same geometric adornments as the daily objects were most often wedding and engagement gifts. They helped express a tribal identity and social status- the reason why women would wear these jewels in a provocative accumulation . Easy to imagine the tinkling sound these adornments produced when worn from head to chest. Videos of these women preforming traditional dances and beautiful 1950s photographies by Mireille Morin-Barde help understand the ceremonial context within which Berber women paraded with their exquisite embellishments. Interestingly and intelligently, there is no hierarchy, within the display, between daily objects and ceremonial items: the first enable an indispensable everyday existence while still bearing mystical symbols when the second help build an explicit identification.
Most objects come from the Berber Museum that opened its doors in 2011, in Marrakesh’s Majorelle Garden which Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent had purchased in 1980. Housing testimony of Berber art, the museum also possessed the jewels passionately collected by the couple from 1966 (when they first visited the country). Yves Saint Laurent who was himself born in Algeria was strongly inspired by the culture he had been surrounded with as a child and that he lovingly found again in the 1970s with his gypset gang. He even attested he had discovered colours in Morocco and yes, Orient definitely influenced some of his most exquisite colourful and embroidered collections and I could not help myself from trying to make links between the traditional costumes displayed here and his couture designs ( an exhibition was organised in Marrakesh, in 2010/2011 to illustrate Yves Saint Laurent’s relationship with Morocco.)
What I appreciated most is that this exhibition does not display ethnic garments for the sake of presenting beautiful oriental pieces. The Fondation Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent adds a sociological and inspirational feel to a show that clearly demonstrates what significant place the Berber woman occupies in her society? And how important her appearance can be, proving dressing up is not simply a means of frivolity as we easily tend to claim in our Western societies.