Re-Thinking The Experience And Representation Of Dress

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On 6 May 2014, we held a study day, Documenting Fashion: Re-Thinking The Experience And Representation Of Dress, at The Courtauld’s Research Forum. This day was the result of a collaboration between the Andrew W Mellon Foundation MA 2013/14: Documenting Fashion: Dress, Film and Image in Europe & America, 1920-45, and Fashion Research Network.

This is an extract from Dr Rebecca Arnold’s keynote talk, Wearing and Viewing Fashion in 1920s America, which focuses on 1min 49secs-3mins 15 secs of this film from the Prelinger Archives: click to see film.

The clip shows how people move and display their bodies at the pool – its jerkiness and speed only serve to highlight the jumps between swimwear and more formal promenade dress. Surfaces are continually displayed and broken, to provoke haptic responses within the viewer – the pool’s surface is breached by the divers, as their bodies impact the water, a repeated action that echoes the movement of the film through the projector, as they circle back for another dive. Their hair becomes slick and their costumes dark and heavy, saturated by water. Their dress and bodies’ materiality is twinned with their emotions’ materiality. Their vigour and joy as water touched skin is made manifest by the film’s own surfaces and movement. The swimmers’ happy faces provoke emotion in viewers – both at the pool, and in the viewing room. This emotional, tactile, visual response remains for us to experience now. In the 1920s, this would have been newer and more intense. Young women parade for, but also shy away from the camera’s stare, wrapped in short, graphic kimonos that add a Hollywood swagger to their simple unisex swimming costumes.  They are aware, if only dimly at this point in history, of how to behave for such scrutiny. Their movements are only slightly adjusted and modified for its gaze, but, like their peers, they remain amateurs – uncertain whether to acknowledge the camera’s presence. They occasionally return its stare, but through sidelong glances, cautious, about paying it too much attention. As Ian Craven has noted of amateur film: ‘At the same time, in their organisation of image, editing, point-of-view and camera movement, such films also disclose symptomatic family dynamics and gender roles on holiday, as well as broaching significant issues of authorship and control.’  The swimmers’ impromptu combinations of knitwear and bathing suits, everyday and leisure wear twinned with active sports clothes, underlines this blurriness. They perform their gender roles and fulfill audience expectations of what happens at the pool, but there is also an element of surprise and spontaneity in their actions and dress adaptations. The idealisation of reality – as depicted in this film, repeated and instilled the idea of the perfect day by the pool, the right way to play on the beach, dress for the promenade. Richard Koeck and Les Roberts have discussed film’s particularlity in this instance: ‘… The medium of the film creates a spatial depth that is different to that of other forms of visual representation. The framing of the location, the lack of colour, the richness of the picture contrast, the movement of the shutter, and, not least, the unedited nature of the footage render real spaces in a new light that is specific to the magical and photogenic properties of early film’. Thus, when seen in relation to fashion editorial and advertising imagery and other contemporary media, it is possible to track emergent forms of realism that are symbiotic with spectacle and conscious display.


Craven, I., ed. (2009) Movies on Home Ground: Explorations in Amateur Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.

Koeck, R. and Roberts, L. (2010) ‘Introduction: projecting the Urban’, in Koeck, R. and Roberts, L. (eds.) The City and the Moving Image: Urban Projections, London: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 10.