Having completed her undergraduate degree at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Frances Crossley returned to study on the ‘Documenting Fashion’ MA course with Dr Rebecca Arnold in 2018. Frances currently works at Richard Green Gallery and is also the AHRC Networking Project Administrator for the Fashion Interpretations project. In this interview we discuss how the global crises of today’s climate has affected the way we interpret and approach fashion, as well as how Frances’ MA dissertation about the reproduction of fashion and its cyclical nature is especially relevant today.
MB: Hi Frances! Could you please expand upon how you came to work at Richard Green gallery, and what led you into becoming the project administrator for Fashion Interpretations (AHRC networking project)? I am interested in your experience working with traditional paintings and modern British art, as well as working with fashion. Do you find any interesting correlations between the two?
FC: Of course, so I began working at the gallery back in 2015. I had applied to do my undergraduate degree at the Courtauld and I knew that I would like to gain a little experience in the industry before committing to a degree, so I started at the gallery in a work experience capacity. I was older than most going into my undergraduate course and after working for a few years after finishing sixth form, I knew it was important to gain qualifications in a field I was interested in working in, long term.
I thought I would be at the gallery for just a couple of weeks, but I slowly began to take on more responsibilities and then before entering into my first term at the Courtauld (so I had been at the gallery roughly nine months), I was asked to join the research department and cover a colleague’s maternity leave – so throughout both my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees I was incorporating what I was learning every day at university into my research practice at the gallery, the two spaces continually informing one another. It was hugely instructional for me and though incredibly challenging at times, it genuinely taught me how to manage my time effectively.
In the years I spent as a researcher at the gallery, yes, fashion would occasionally creep into my work. In 2017, the gallery held an exhibition entitled “A Flair for Fashion” which celebrated the art of dress in British portraiture from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. This project was informative for me, highlighting how dress could be incorporated within the commercial art industry, but in a way that is educational and fun. It’s hard when you’re studying, to envision how our fashion-history obsessions can be tangibly woven into settings such as these; but this project proved it was possible.
Each portrait from the exhibition was impeccably researched – I was obsessed with the catalogue, it was really beautiful, and something I was so proud to have worked on and contributed to – each painting had its own accompanying essay and Aileen Ribiero, formerly Head of the History of Dress at The Courtauld, wrote an introductory essay for the catalogue and smaller essays on each portrait’s dress. As I had only been part of the research department for a year, I contributed to the essays and research where I could, but I predominantly helped with sourcing comparative images from museums, galleries, institutes from around the world to enrich catalogue essays – I really learnt a lot! This is one of my favourites that I helped source, (interesting as I later wrote on Poiret in my MA dissertation!):
I also helped to conduct several Instagram takeovers for the gallery, including one by Peter Copping [https://www.businessoffashion.com/community/people/peter-copping] which was a lot of fun. I think I find the most enjoyment in working collaboratively with people.
I have to admit, fashion theory, actually art theory in general; very rarely came into my practice at the galleries; however, it has of course been present throughout my role with Fashion Interpretations, so that has given me my much-needed dose of post-MA reading material! And my path to the role was really simple: Rebecca sent out a DM to our MA group (*The Glitter Gang*) last September, letting us know about the vacancy. I applied – with haste, finishing my application on my birthday! – interviewed with Rebecca and Judith (and Oliver, the Courtauld Insitute’s Research Manager) and was lucky enough to be offered the position. It has been ridiculously dreamy, ever since!
MB: Could you discuss your role within the Fashion Interpretations project?
FC: My role has a pretty snazzy title, if I do say so myself – I am the project’s AHRC Networking Project Administrator (yup.). This effectively means that I am responsible for the project’s upkeep, making sure all the behind-the-scenes, administrative stuff gets done. I have been involved with a number of different parts of the project, organising our Networking Project meetings, helping to draft and, actually, redraft our budget – COVID has meant a project extension, project members unable to travel, our symposium being translated into a virtual event, etc. – which is completely new for me, preparing for our symposium (details coming very soon!), setting up and curating both our blog and Instagram account, coordinating Instagram takeovers by our members, and soon, helping with the production of Archivist Addendum – the publication by Dal Chodha and Jane Howard that will house all our project members’ work and essays, I will be helping with proof-reading our members’ submissions.
Events such as our Networking meeting in May have really stood out to me as an opportunity to be grateful for, grateful to be a part of; getting to listen to this fabulous group of people discuss their work. How they have interpreted the project’s theme, their individual translations on the ways in which modern and contemporary fashion is reinterpreted through various mediums. If you want to read more about what we discussed, I wrote a comprehensive account of our meeting for the project’s blog: https://sites.courtauld.ac.uk/fashioninterpretations/2020/05/12/a-change-in-meeting/
MB: Fashion Interpretations considers the way fashion is transformed through different mediums. Has this become even more prominent in discussion, now that the global pandemic has forced us all online in order to share and connect?
FC: Medium truly informs everything, it is the lens through which we filter every facet of the everyday. Therefore fashion, as an expression of the self, through dress, modification, as a material interpretation, is unimaginably affected by the COVID-19 crisis.
Fashion can be articulated through various media and though I am constantly viewing and cataloguing fashion imagery, as a personal practice and as part of my role for the project, the medium that I feel most readily in contact with is both the fashion I dress myself in and the fashion that defines the relationships closest to me. How each of my friends represents a unique interpretation of fashion, my sneakerhead brother’s endearing DMs about footwear drops he’s stalking online, the comforting smell of my mum’s bluey-green scarf that she wraps herself in when cold, the decorative hair accessories my best friends daughter removes throughout the day, punctuating the hours we’ve spent together – as we navigate through this crisis, it’s strange how I can identify the loss of these intimacies, small fragments of their personhood. That has been very meaningful to me, watching them resurface as lockdown has eased.
In order to continue sharing and connecting, we have to make a more definite move into a virtual space. Within fashion, taking an intrinsically material form of expression, a subject designed to be shared and interpreted as a collective, and channelling it through a medium – the digital – which could potentially isolate those taking part, it is a tricky transition. I think what is most important during the current climate is the establishment of communities and I feel very fortunate to be part of one through the Fashion Interpretations project. Our digital communications have been important to me, in these past months.
MB: Your MA dissertation examined what the act of ‘copying’ means in the fashion industry, specifically focusing on Parisian haute couture being copied by American ready-to-wear in the interwar periods. This ‘copying’ and recycling of trends is interesting to consider now, as fashion often looks to the past following moments of crisis (e.g Dior’s New Look). Do you think there will be a need for nostalgia in dress following the current global pandemic? Or will the increasing awareness in supporting local, small businesses, and buying vintage break the cycle?
FC: Yes, so in my dissertation I discussed how reproduction, or “copying”, is a valid mode of fashion production and a trend perpetually readdressed throughout fashion history. I had originally wanted to place my exploration in the present, or recent-present, due to a conversation I entered into with Edward Crutchley over Instagram, before starting my dissertation. It was a weird but very 2019 entrance into a dissertation subject and the conversation actually formed the basis of my introduction too – though the process felt quite informal, it simultaneously felt as though it had developed with me and my experiences, which made it special.
After the MA trip to New York, I formed a small obsession with American sportswear designer Bonnie Cashin and was regularly stalking the feed of the Instagram account @cashincopy [https://www.instagram.com/cashincopy], on which Dr Stephanie Lake (its owner) often posts comparative collages / images, placing designs of Cashin’s in conversation with similar contemporary fashions, “copies” – she has taken the matter of policing the reproduction of Cashin’s designs into her own hands. It encouraged a similar personal practice, wherein I began a sartorial version of snap with myself, banking images in my memory and “Saved” folder on Instagram, making connections to try and track this continuously looping pattern within modern fashion that kept resurfacing. Long story short – I found this image of Cashin wearing a tall, wide-brimmed hat online. As opposed to Dr Lake’s side-by-side layouts, I created and posted a two-image slide post. The cover image was from Edward Crutchley’s Autumn/Winter 2019 show during London Fashion Week Men’s in January 2019. The image features a collection of models backstage, two looking directly into the camera’s lens and a third – the point of interest in this comparison piece – whose attention is being held away from the camera’s gaze. Atop this third model’s head is a tall, wide-brimmed hat (designed by Crutchley, in collaboration with Stephen Jones), its structure is implied through a meshed, translucent nylon that allows the bones of the hat’s unique construction to be perpetually on show. It is fixed to the model’s head with a ribbon that fastens across the centre of her neck. Behind this image was an archival photograph of Cashin, modelling a cylindrical hat of similar design.
Dr Stephanie Lake later informed me that Cashin purchased the hat worn in this photograph during her travels for the Ford Foundation throughout Asia during the 1950s. I meant this post to act purely as a personal exercise, to visually demonstrate the cyclical movement of late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries fashion design and how fragments of the past are resurrected in contemporary modes, giving historicised motifs new meaning. But it inspired a response – as result, I assume, of a post-Diet Prada virtual fashion landscape – and Crutchley messaged me to correct my comparison, his AW19 hats were actually based on the traditional male, Korean bridal gat (a form of Joseon-era headwear): “My hat was based on a traditional Korean gat … the originals are horse hair but [Crutchley and Stephen Jones] used a nylon crin.” Another cycle, and we are shown how each articulation of this accessory is interconnected.
So maybe not so long story short, sorry (!), but these moments of reinterpretation, I find, are constant and so fascinating. And we crave them, look how many nostalgic, vintage-aesthetic Instagram accounts / influencers exist. I genuinely follow about 20-or-so fashion throwback accounts that feature the word “nostalgia” in their IG bio (now you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it). It is accounts such as these that push our eternal yearning to revisit the past in order to find new forms of inspiration – a gat for example, revisited for decades, taking on new meanings. I would love to think that the current climate will push us to support local businesses, to find creative, kinder new ways in which to reinvent our wardrobes and shopping practices but it’s so hard to not become disheartened by fast-fashion’s hold over so many of us. I feel – maybe it’s my age / who I follow on social media / the media or entertainment that I am constantly surrounded by – that our collective complacency has been recognised but it’s not being rectified ferociously enough.
MB: This recalls a post you wrote for the Documenting Fashion blog in 2018, ‘A Portrait of Jeremy Scott’, in which you discuss his self-awareness in presenting as a “King of kitsch”. An artist I worked with, Ben Frost, had his artwork (which addresses pop-culture and consumerism) used in Moschino’s 2018 fall/winter collection. The models wore Jackie Kennedy style pillbox hats, referencing the 1960’s, while also painted head to toe in varying colours, to appear ‘alien-like’. Is this “kitschy” nostalgia, but also desire for the future/other-worldly, a theme that you think will keep developing now in fashion?
FC: I think so, for certain brands, I think it’s connected to that desire to return to past styles. A craving for nostalgia, which, for me, is inherently linked to kitsch and this playful interpretation of “fashion” as something fun or borderline silly. To most, Jeremy Scott included, this could be translated through a childhood understanding of “dress up”, becoming a character and embodying their form through dress, makeup, exaggerated affectations. I remember this season that you’ve mentioned, Moschino AW18, the conspiracy theorist-esque backstory, the Jackie O uniforms absurdly blended with outer space undertones – I think Scott quoted his inspiration was sourced from this anecdotal urban-myth wherein JFK told Marilyn Monroe that aliens were real, Monroe freaked and threatened she was going to leak the story to the press and then she was killed as a consequence, total conspiracy vibes, messy, messy, messy. This is such a childlike reaction, you learn about a wildly fanciful story (be it fairytale or a political-sexual-extraterrestrial scandal), you pick at its most fascinating elements, then you haphazardly splice them together to create this wonderful hybrid. We’ve all been there…
Even last week, when Scott rebuilt the runway in miniature for the Moschino SS21 presentation, as a gloriously fantastical puppet show, all I could think of was the magic that puppets, small ornate wooden bodies held up by string and painted with little, delicate faces, held for me as a child (think Jim Henson or John Wright of the Little Angel Theatre). Though in that blog post you mention, I gave Scott a bit of a hard time, I was stunned by the thoughtfulness he displayed throughout the SS21 presentation, the show already feels like a piece of fashion history that remarkably documents our current circumstances, and the need for boldness.
“Kitsch” could easily define the throughline that weaves Scott’s collections together or his overwhelmingly potent aesthetic. However, “kitsch” to me, is not too far away from the ironic, ironic fashion, which is interpreted far more subjectively. I also wrote a post on “fashion gimmickry” for the Fashion Interpretations blog, which takes a little more of an in depth look at this idea: https://sites.courtauld.ac.uk/fashioninterpretations/2020/02/03/fashion-gimmickry-interpretation-imitation/
MB: You are interested in how repetition manifests within fashion, have you noticed any repetition of trends happening right now? Or have you had any personal desire to dress differently as the lockdown is slowly lifting?
FC: Again, to me, to my eye, repetition manifests constantly, it is embedded into the fashion industry’s foundations. Fashion is a powerful cultural phenomenon that shouldn’t be reduced to a singular, “present-day” understanding. In her essay ‘So Last Season: The Production of the Fashion Present in the Politics of Time’, Aurélie Van Der Peer notes how we (academics / industry professionals / the fashion world-adjacent) tend to regard fashion as rooted in the present, that we discount how contemporary fashions are deceivingly characterised by the absence of fashion history. References such as the aforementioned: @cashincopy, promote the necessity of originality in fashion design but referencing of past fashion histories is essential to the way our current fashion system functions.
“Trends”, whether knowingly or not, possess elements of past fashions, maybe scrambled or purist. I have formed a minor obsession with sweater vests for example recently, knitted and in a variety of different colours, prints, perfect for a mid-season shift in temperature. This is a garment I associate with the nineties, but it also hangs in my memory as a distinctly seventies garment, and it’s present again in imagery from the decade previous, it pops up throughout the century, being repeatedly revived. See here a pic of sweater vest I would love to own, money no object.
I wouldn’t say how I am dressing is drastically different post-lockdown, I would say however that I am having to regain some confidence. In my early twenties, I had unshakable faith in my ability to covet and coordinate unique pieces, I always felt very strong in harnessing them into very *me* outfits but that strength had been slowly whittled away in the past couple of years and I think lockdown has exacerbated that feeling. Now, as I am venturing out into social settings a little more often, there’s time to prepare and put more care into the process, hopefully that will give me the space to rebuild the confidence that was lost.
MB: I was interested in your blog post from 2019 about the ‘Neue Frau’ in German Weimar-era lesbian magazines. I examined the sexual and social liberations of Weimar-era cinema in my dissertation; how gender fluidity and drag was accessed in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, 1959, by using the disguise of the more risqué 1920s, and the film’s original roots in Weimar-era cinema. Your idea that gender subversion was accessed through the multi-faceted identity of the Neue Frau demonstrates how self-image reflects the climate of a country (i.e. Germany’s fear of masculine women). How relevant do you think these themes of disguise, and re-fashioning the body in times of crisis are, in fashion right now?
FC: In lockdown we remained indoors for our own safety, for the safety of our family members and loved ones, those who were vulnerable and in need of protection – it served as a period of isolation, in order to preserve life. It felt like a hibernation, after which we would re-enter the outside world, though cautiously, in order to regain a sense of normality.
Whenever I considered the figure of the ‘Neue Frau’ (this was also the subject of my second assessed essay during the MA) I imagined her building this impenetrable layer of sartorial armour around herself and in the case of the women documented in the pages of publications such as Liebende Frauen, her queer identity – the heteronormative ‘masculinity’ that underlined her new age interpretation of femininity acting as a protective shield, to ward away those who ridiculed or refused to understand her. I came across these queer, Weimar-age magazines by chance, I was researching for my assessed essay and reading different event pages for the 2016 LACMA exhibition “New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919–1933”. In an article post by LACMA surrounding this exhibition entitled “Homosexuality Is a German Invention”, curator Nana Bahlmann noted several of these magazines, I then went on to contact Spinnboden—Lesbenarchiv und Bibliothek in Berlin and trawled through lots and lots of issues! It was such a fun process of exploration.
I think refashioning is conceived through conflict or trauma. In this tumultuous, interwar period an overwhelming number of men were removed from the urban workforce, throughout Europe and in Germany, through conscription. As in all combatant countries, women were therefore expected to fill vacant positions in order to maintain industrial productivity. Women occupied the spaces their male counterparts left behind. And in a post-war Germany, they visibly gained greater movement through previously inaccessible social and political spaces. However, this progression was compounded by economic and political insecurities that Conservative forces viewed as symptomatic of the newly formed Weimar Republic. A nationwide anxiety could work to actively stifle our self-fashioning freedoms, as this example demonstrates, but we have alternative spaces through which to channel such expressions. Though the virtual realm can be ugly and outright dangerous in many circumstances, it provides a much-needed environment to experiment with all manner of fashioning.
Here is the link to the article we’ve mentioned: https://sites.courtauld.ac.uk/documentingfashion/2019/02/26/in-her-image-the-documentation-of-the-neue-frau-in-german-weimar-era-lesbian-magazines/
MB: At the start of May, the Fashion Interpretations group met as a full group for the first time via a zoom meeting. Will Fashion Interpretations continue to change and adapt to our current climate (regarding the black lives matter movement and covid-19 especially), in correlation with the way the fashion world is changing and adapting also?
FC: The horrific murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the shooting of Jacob Blake have irrevocably altered the fabric of our global consciousness. The viral video of George Floyd’s death became a catalyst for a civil uprising, spurring the largest-scale protests in American history. These are unavoidable tragedies that force us all to reexamine our own social and political practices, our own educations on black histories, stories, experiences. I cannot speak for the Fashion Interpretations project as a whole, it is a group of academics and creatives who work independently, but the Black Lives Matter movement has and will forever continue to influence my own research and writing.
And yes, the COVID crisis has affected how Fashion Interpretations functions logistically and certain events in our project’s calendar have had to be seriously adapted. As previously mentioned, later this year, we will be holding our symposium virtually, it will be a week-long event and our members will be discussing their contributions to the project and showing us they work – we can’t wait to share the details with everyone! A definite change in my working world that has been totally undone by the global pandemic is the constant influx of emails.
MB: Finally, do you have any words of wisdom you can share for the Documenting Fashion students who have just graduated. There is certainly an air of uncertainty when you graduate, which seems especially amplified now!
FC: To remember that if the future you had envisioned seems fragile or even unfathomable right now, that many others feel the terrifying weight of this crisis too. Also, none of us have encountered anything of this magnitude before, so to feel clueless in the face of its effects is not weak; we have to support one another through it, however we can. If you can’t find work relevant to your degree or the field in which you are interested, continue reading and educating yourself. Fill out as many applications in a week as you can stomach, write where you can, check in regularly with your *thing* – so for me, the patterns, if I can find a new link (it’s been fashion month, which has brought with it levity and some much-needed joy!) between the old and new, I am reminded of why I love fashion history and why I worked so hard for my degree – make lists (dream jobs, companies / institutions you would be proud to work for, different professional spaces you would be keen to occupy) – basically, keep busy. Don’t necessarily mount pressure on yourself but keep yourself agile. So, when your opportunity arrives, you are beyond prepared for it. Nobody ever suffered from being over prepared.
Also, be kind. We all need a little kindness.
Interview by Mollie Beese