Each month in 2015, we will post an interview with one of our alumni, as part of our celebrations of this year’s auspicious anniversary. The Courtauld’s History of Dress students have gone on to forge careers in a diverse and exciting range of areas. We hope you enjoy reading about their work, and their memories of studying here.
Alumni Interview Part One: Aileen Ribeiro, Emeritus Professor, Courtauld Institute of Art, MA (1971), PhD (1975), Head of History of Dress Department (1975-2009).
Aileen Ribeiro has lectured internationally and written widely on the history of dress, including Facing Beauty: Painted Women and Cosmetic Art (Yale: 2011), and Fashion and Fiction: Dress in Art and Literature in Stuart England (Yale: 2005). In addition, she has been a costume consultant to major portrait exhibitions in the UK and US, most recently Whistler, Women and Fashion at the Frick Collection, New York (2003).
Why the history of dress?
My first degree was in history, which I enjoyed on the whole, although in retrospect there was a sense of dissatisfaction in the predominance of political history rather than cultural history. It was very much with the feeling of being rescued from the desert when, a few years later, I finally engaged with ideas of putting a face on history, with what people looked like and what they wore, particularly as I became increasingly interested in the history of art.
When and where did you become aware it was something you could study at The Courtauld?
Fairly soon after I’d graduated, my husband and I (sorry, that makes me sound a bit like the Queen…) spent some time teaching in Zambia, which was when I realised I wanted to teach, a profession which I’ve enjoyed immensely. While in Africa, where I taught history and English, I wrote to the Courtauld Institute with the idea of studying art history, but the prospectus gave details of a postgraduate course in the history of dress, which had recently been set up, and which sounded intriguing, so I applied and was accepted.
What were your first impressions of The Courtauld? And of Stella Mary Newton?
The Courtauld Institute of Art was established in 1932 to offer the first degree in England in art history. Samuel Courtauld donated his collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist works to the institute named after him, which was established in his town house, Home House, in Portman Square. By the time, in 1969, I arrived at the Courtauld, the art collections were housed in a separate gallery in Bloomsbury, but the Institute was still in Portman Square, a wonderful Adam house, although the library was sometimes difficult to use, particularly the collections in basements and cellars. As for the History of Dress Department, it was housed in the mews across the garden at the back of Home House, where Stella Mary also had her office. I remember being impressed by her elegance, stylish dress and jewellery, which wasn’t surprising as she had had a small couture house in London in the 1930s, and retained a great interest in fashion.
What was your favourite aspect of studying History of Dress with Stella Mary Newton?
The course – the first I think in the world – was established in 1965; Stella Mary Newton had been a costume designer in the theatre, with a particular interest in historical dress, and during the Second World War she had worked in the National Gallery in London, dating and identifying paintings through costume. Stella was my mentor – an inspirational teacher and self-taught scholar; she was the first to focus on the importance of clothing in art, that artists depict the dress of their time, either consciously or unconsciously.
What were your goals when you took on the role as course leader?
Through her [Stella Mary Newton’s] work I realised how important the links between art and clothing were and are. Which is why much of my career has been devoted to this aspect of the history of dress, both as a teacher (I became head of the History of Dress Department at the Courtauld in 1975), and as a writer. I never had any doubts when I first began to study the history of dress, that this subject had immense possibilities; it began in some respects as a kind of handmaiden to art/theatre/design history, but now it’s a discipline in its own right, with so many facets which it would take numberless lifetimes to explore.
Inevitably, given that the history of dress is situated in the most famous place for the study of art history, what we can ‘read’ in a work of art and how clothing can illuminate these works of art in themselves, and can reveal a wide range of aspects of society and of individuals, is an important aspect of our study, but one of the aims of our subject is to look at the history of dress within the context of social and cultural history, to analyse and interpret clothing from extant objects, documentary and literary sources, as well as from the visual. And I want to impress how important it is for students of the history of dress to be open to a wide range of possibilities, to study the subject from the earliest periods, and not just to concentrate on the 20th century and contemporary fashion.
What was your favourite aspect of teaching History of Dress at The Courtauld?
One of my pleasures in teaching the history of dress was to see how students were enthused by particular eras, topics, themes from classical antiquity onwards. So much research needs to be done in the areas of classical, medieval, Renaissance and the early modern periods; I think Stella Newton thought I was too ‘modern’ in choosing the 18th century for my PhD!
How did your teaching change over your time here?
It’s an interesting question, to contemplate how one’s teaching evolves over time, and not always easy to determine; sometimes it changes in response to students’ interests, and perhaps it’s more evident in writing. My concern has always been to teach and write in a way that’s accessible, and to avoid the opaque and often pretentious jargon of much academic discourse, particularly when it moves away from the object, but – because dress like art, is often full of signs, of ambiguities, and sometimes contradictory impulses – it needs de-coding if it is to have meaning. This is never-ending, and makes the history of dress/clothing, fashion, constantly surprising and illuminating.