I’m currently researching a paper that I plan to give at the conference we are holding on the 16th May, ‘Women Make Fashion/Fashion Makes Women’. My paper is entitled ‘Zuzu Angel: Fashioning Resistance to the Brazilian Military Dictatorship, New York, 13th September, 1971’ and concerns the Brazilian fashion designer Zuzu Angel, who earned the title ‘Woman of the Year’ in 1969, awarded by the National Council of Women in Brazil.
On 14th May 1971, Zuzu’s son, twenty-six year old Brazilian student Stuart Edgar Angel Jones, was ‘forcibly disappeared’ in Rio de Janeiro by the intelligence agents of the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-1985). This was because Stuart was a leader of the left-wing guerrilla organisation, MR-8, who opposed the right-wing regime, which was covertly supported as a result of Cold War tactics by the U.S. government.
Prior to Stuart’s disappearance, Zuzu was celebrated for her exotic and colourful designs that drew on folkloric images of Brazil, such as Carmen Miranda and tropical flora and fauna. Yet following 13th September 1971, when Zuzu held a fashion show at the general consul of Brazil’s residence in New York, her designs initiated a radical change in tone. As she explained: ‘Four months ago, when I began to think about [the show], I was inspired by my country’s colourful flowers and the beautiful birds. But, then, suddenly this nightmare entered my life and the flowers lost their colour and the birds went crazy and I produced a collection with a political theme’.
I began my research last year in Sao Paulo, whilst on a study trip researching my PhD at National Geographic Brasil headquarters. My time spent in Sao Paulo coincided with a fashion exhibition about Zuzu, held at the Itau Cultural Centre (1 April 2014 – 11 May 2014). It was curated by her daughter Hildegard Angel, a journalist and founder of the Instituto Zuzu Angel, with Valdy Lopes Jn, Itau Cultural’s art director, and entitled ‘Occupation Zuzu: Mother of Brazilian Fashion’.
The exhibition presented dresses, documents, objects, sketches, photographs and letters, some of which Zuzu wrote to famous Brazilian and foreign intellectuals, politicians, such as Henry Kissinger, and celebrities, such as Brazilian singer Chico Buarque, all connected to her attempt to draw international attention to her son’s assassination. Most notable in the collections displayed was the drastic change in Zuzu’s designs after 1971, which were much darker and more solemn, as can be seen in a long black silk gown printed with gold detail. Designs such as this one marked a stark contrast from earlier collections, which were exuberant and colourful, as can be seen in Pepsi Ladies (ca. 1965), and in her print designs, which used embroidered tropical birds.
My paper will examine the coverage of Zuzu’s sobering collection in the United States fashion press to consider the representation of women and maternal femininity. This will be contextualised within the broader news coverage of systematic torture in Brazil that was reported under the military regime. I’ve already done some research at the National Library in Rio de Janeiro, but I’ll be visiting the British Library to look at American papers such as the New York Times and Washington Post. Zuzu’s story is a chilling one in Brazilian fashion history, namely because she died in 1976, in a car crash whilst traveling late at night through one of the tunnels in Rio de Janeiro. It was discovered later that her car had been doctored by the Brazilian political police and her early death, like Stuart’s, was not coincidental.
‘Women Make Fashion/ Fashion Make Women’, a conference celebrating fifty years of history of dress at the Courtauld, will take place on 16 May at the Courtauld Institute of Art. For more information and tickets, visit http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/researchforum/events/2015/summer/may16_WomenMakeFashion.shtml