For the casting of the SS15 show, and the 125th anniversary of the House of Lanvin, Alber Elbaz looked back through the model archive. The designer explained: “I did not want it to feel like a coming-back-type-of-thing, but almost like a parade of women of different ages; it’s not just about cool and trendy but about timelessness”. During this celebratory season, the Lanvin women on the catwalk were strong and powerful models from the Eighties and Nineties, embodied by iconic names such as Amber Valletta, Kirsten Owen, Violetta Sanchez and Natasa Vojnovic. Tim Blanks, Editor-at-Large Style.com, noted that ‘apparently the best maquillage’ was indeed experience. Midway through the show, the forty-three-year-old Canadian model Kirsten Owen made an almost ghostlike appearance, wearing a long white flowing Empire-line dress. In the Nineties, she was a crucial component of Helmut Lang’s shows, in which Lang had always sought to evoke a sense of diversity and reality. He had experimented by bringing men and women of different age groups and ethnicities together, and by asking not only professional models but also his close friends to model his creations. Owen’s natural yet unconventional beauty challenged the dominant images in contemporary commercial fashion and magazines, and today at Lanvin her appearance, again, was able to add to the intensely personal mood of the show. Contrary to what comments in the press might suggest, Elbaz’s cast of women of various ages was neither new nor experimental. Nonetheless, Elbaz’s preference to work with “retired” models showed he was well aware that these faces, with their maturity and individual character, were no blank canvases upon which he needed to impose a new vision. In fact, quite the opposite was true: the Lanvin story was no longer only about the garments but, by simply being there, these cult models reminded the audience of the brand’s long and established history, and contributed to the cultural capital of the House.
Emma McClendon graduated from The Courtauld Institute of Art in 2011 and is now an assistant curator at the Museum at the FIT, New York. She is currently working on an exhibition on 1970s fashion by Halston and Yves Saint Laurent. She lives on the Lower East Side.
What are you wearing today?
I am wearing Alexander Wang boots and a shirtdress by Veronique Leroy. I am also wearing faux-leather shorts from Zara underneath my dress…a funny fact about New York is that in summer a lot of girls wear shorts beneath their dresses because it’s a particularly windy city! But it’s also just too hot not to wear something flowing.
How would you describe your style?
I would say minimal but with an interest in volume and different kinds of shapes and silhouettes. I wear a lot of black, white and navy. I definitely have a favourite silhouette that I wear. I tend to like chunkier shoes with skinny pants and bigger tops.
Who are your favourite designers?
Personally, I gravitate towards stuff by Alexander Wang, I wear a lot of Theory as well and I like the more minimal stuff from Opening Ceremony, based here in New York. I also wear a lot of Reformation – they are a great sustainable brand that make all of their pieces out of pre-used or upcycled materials.
What is your dress code at the FIT?
There are things I wear to work such as pencil skirts and collared shirts that I might not wear during my “off-duty time”. I probably wouldn’t wear my denim overalls, oversized sweaters and jean jackets to work. In a way, I suppose I have more tones of grunge in my off-duty look that I don’t bring to work. This is no doubt a product of having grown-up in the Nineties!
Have you ever worked on an exhibition that inspired you to dress differently?
Every exhibition that you work on affects some aspect of the way that you dress. You look at different styles and time periods every day, and you start to gravitate towards pieces. I’ve been working for the last six months on a show about 1970s fashion and since then I have invested in a jumpsuit. Also, I used to have really long hair… but after admiring a picture of Anjelica Huston on the Halston runway, I decided to cut my hair short like hers.
Did your style change whilst studying in London?
Yes. One thing that came out of me being in London was definitely black opaque tights with everything, anytime of year!
New York City summers are HOT. What are your tricks to stay cool?
You need to wear short skirts and flowing things because it is so hot here that you will die otherwise. I deal with the heat by carrying my make-up in my bag in case I need to touch-up and by leaving a jacket at work (for when it gets too cold inside with the air conditioning). One thing I would say about New York summer is that you have to embrace the heat and accept the fact that you are going to be sweaty and nasty – we are all in it together and everyone feels disgusting!
Whilst back in Belgium I thought to myself, why not ask my dear friend – and fellow Art History student from the University of Leuven – about her views on style, femininity and the key to feeling confident.
Can you tell me what you are wearing today?
I am wearing some classic pieces, such as my favourite suede platform espadrilles, oversized comfy trench coat and silk transparent blouse. I think that together with my neoprene rucksack and sporty bomber jacket, the outfit evades pure minimalism and becomes more edgy. I didn’t realise this before but I think H&M should hire me as their walking-ad-campaign as I am dressed from head-to-toe in the Swedish label.
How would you describe your style?
I mostly wear muted shades like black, beige and grey and I try to express my creativity and personality by opting for unconventional materials. My budget is limited, so I often find myself browsing through sample-sales for special fabrics – by Pelican Avenue or Stephan Schneider – that I then use as scarves or bandanas. My style is all about mixing silk with mohair, leather with velvet, and neoprene with cashmere. It remains quite subtle I think.
What are the criteria to feel confident about the way you look?
I would say “my smile”, which is preferably with lipstick. I hate to admit it but I hardly ever leave the house without any make-up. In my teenage years, I used it to cover-up bad skin, but now it has become a way to express myself. I always match my make-up with my outfit and mood, and I am hooked on eye shadow. On a more practical level… I love watches and have dozens of them. I have to set the time at least ten minutes early as I am always quite late.
Has your dissertation on contemporary Japanese designers influenced your style in any way?
You wouldn’t ever catch me wearing sexy bodycon dresses, short skirts or low necklines. After focusing on the Japanese designers and their take on the image of women, I refuse to follow the traditional Western vision of female sexuality. This is not always easy. It might seem silly, but now I tend to let my trench hang nonchalantly instead of belting it to emphasise my waist. I prefer to express my femininity with lipstick!
Which items are on your summer wishlist?
I definitely want a sun visor to wear during my holiday in the South of France. I don’t enjoy tanning too much so I’ll try to fashionably hide away from the sun. I also really want a Dalmatian puppy to accompany my outfits!
A small arrow links the fashion sketch with the words “Spanish Influence”. This sketch was made for Madge Garland, editor of British Vogue, during the presentation of the 1939 Winter Collections in Paris. Cristobal Balenciaga (1895-1972) christened the design the “Infanta” gown since he had been inspired by Diego Velázquez’s portrait Las Meninas (1656). In this painting, the five-year old Infanta of Spain, Margarita Teresa, wears a dress with a tight-fitting bodice and a wide skirt supported by a dome-shaped hooped petticoat. Balenciaga’s version, with its contrasting colours, resembles her gown and echoes the shape and formality of seventeenth-century court dress. The clever blending of elements of historical dress with contemporary shapes ensured that Balenciaga’s 1939 evening gown appealed to both the fashion press, which has an appetite for novelty and innovation, and his discerning clientele.
In 1939 fashion journalists proclaimed the “Infanta” gown a “remarkable” phenomenon. In such narratives it was the presumed Spanishness of the design, inextricably linked to Balenciaga’s heritage, which was heralded as innovative and “different”. For example, on 15 September 1939, an editorial in American Vogue read:
“Balenciaga borrows again from that earlier Spaniard – there’s a Velázquez look about this dress, which Miss Mona Maris wears like a sixteenth-century court beauty.”
Balenciaga had arrived in Paris in 1937, a period in which nationalism had become an important topic of debate for both European politics and Parisian couture. He presented the collection in 1939, the same year that the Spanish Civil War reached new heights of violence, which included the firebombing of his native region, the Basque. Balenciaga’s reference to Spanish art history was interpreted as a personal quest for cultural identity and a nostalgic longing for origins.
However, several other Parisian couturiers also dipped into art history for themes and motifs in 1939. In British Vogue, Garland linked this trend to the feeling of malaise just before the outbreak of the Second World War:
“In 1939, every irrelevant romantic image was invoked, from the paintings of Boucher and Watteau to the personalities of Queen Victoria and the Empress Eugénie. Corsetieres were called in to help construct the boned bodices of the new-old gowns.”
The silhouette of the Infanta dress was in line with the historicist theme acknowledged by Garland, but also with the small corseted waists and wide skirts in vogue in Parisian couture. Timing was crucial and the Infanta dress became inextricably linked to the wider debate on national identities. Interestingly, the use of seventeenth-century Spanish costume elements by Mainbocher, the House of Worth or Lanvin was not met with similar response.
The Infanta dress had been designed by a ‘real Spaniard’ and as result, it was interpreted as a manifestation of Balenciaga’s distinctive national identity and culture. Scholars and journalists appeared to understand Balenciaga’s new role as their tour guide to Spain. It is important to note that there were a variety of other design elements in Balenciaga’s work that revealed that Spanishness was not his sole defining trait as a designer. Nevertheless, it was this kind of exoticism that, in 1939, sparked interest among his clientele, and proved undoubtedly beneficial to the cultural and economic capital of an emerging designer in Paris.
Arzalluz, M. (2010) Cristóbal Balenciaga. The Making of a Master (1895-1936), London: V&A Publications.
Garland, M. (1968) The Indecisive Decade. The World of Fashion and Entertainment in the Thirties, London: Macdonald.
‘Fashion: Hoop-Skirts to Hobble-Skirts at the…Paris Openings’ (American Vogue, September 1939).
‘Fashion: Paris Openings – Variety Show’ (American Vogue, September 1939).
‘The Great Painters Colour Paris Fashion’ (American Vogue, September 1939).
The House of Schiaparelli was the new name during Paris couture fashion week 2014. In 1926, Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) opened her business at 21 Place Vendôme and closed again on 13 December 1954. In 2007, Diego Della Valle, president and owner of the Italian leather goods company Tod’s, acquired the rights to Schiaparelli’s name and archives. The re-inauguration of her label is thus not a matter of continuation but rather an awakening of her legacy after a nearly 60-year long sleep. Schiaparelli is remembered for making fashion history between the two World Wars and for her intriguing collaborations with surrealist artists like Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. She introduced the idea of themed collections, staged runway shows as entertainment, and used bizarre aspects of adornment like “fantasy” buttons and exotic furs, such as monkey. Despite their unmistakable avant-garde character, her designs never became mere caricatures or translations of avant-garde art into clothing, but remained both sellable and wearable. The new House builds upon the significance of Schiaparelli’s life history and legacy. Creative director Marco Zanini was appointed to design the first couture collection for the House since 1954. In his nineteen looks, the designer clearly looked at the archives and played with the Schiaparelli codes: vivid and graphic prints showed her sense of colour, and silhouettes were elaborately embroidered. The more obvious references to Schiaparelli’s iconic thirties designs – like lobsters and shoe hats – were absent. The show took its audience’s imagination on a journey through different times, places, and emotions. The new Schiaparelli woman had a variety of different faces, tempers and characters. As a whole, the show was an eclectic collage of memories from the past and the present. Zanini’s ambiguous tale triggered curiosity for the next chapter of Schiaparelli’s story in our era.
Beatrice Behlen is Senior Curator of Fashion & Decorative Arts at the Museum of London. She completed the MA History of Dress at the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1991.
When did you know you wanted to do something with fashion?
From when I was little, I was always interested in clothes. I can still remember the things I wore when I was three years old. At first, I wanted to become a fashion journalist because the idea of it sounded very glamorous; I thought I would fly everywhere and see fashion shows. At the time, you couldn’t study fashion journalism in Germany, so I was very lucky to get into a school for fashion design in Bremen without really having a portfolio.
Did the school make you want to become a fashion designer?
Not really, I wasn’t very good as a fashion designer and it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. It was a very proper fashion design course and we learned how to make drawings and patterns. At one point, I remember we went to see the fashion shows in Paris. This was of course great, but I hated it at the same time. I immediately felt that this was not my world and that it was not where I wanted to be either. Everything in fashion happens too quickly, I couldn’t deal with it. What I really enjoyed most about the course were the classes on fashion history.
Can you tell me about your fashion designs? What were they like?
I found the body something difficult to deal with because it is round and everyone is different. I think I should probably have done graphic design because it is more orderly and all about straight lines. I like order. For my last collection, I designed a group of really big top hats inspired by the Arnolfini Portrait and the drawings for Alice in Wonderland. This collection was about the meaning and significance of hats and it was a mix between the real and surreal.
Who was your favorite designer?
I always really liked Jean Paul Gaultier.
After studying fashion design you moved to London to study the History of Dress at the Courtauld. What was it like back then?
I had to go to the Courtauld for an interview first. It was not easy and very expensive to go all the way to London for just one day. Luckily, I had the entire afternoon free and spent ages just walking around at the V&A. After I was accepted, I just couldn’t get my head around the fact that there were only seven of us on the course because in Germany there had always been so many of us. The first year of the course was a whole run through of fashion history starting from the Romans and Greeks to now. I found that first year very tough because I hadn’t done an academic course before. I can still remember the first presentation I had to give… I couldn’t even finish it. The second year, my special subject was the history of dress for the period 1600-1640, mainly for England, France and Holland.
What did you write your dissertation on?
I wrote about several fashion magazines dating from the period around 1800. I was working on it at the British Library all the time, even on Saturdays…
Did you know right after graduation that you wanted to become a fashion curator?
No, I thought I wanted to be an academic. I am not sure why that was exactly. I didn’t think being a curator was something for me because curators were usually a particular kind of woman that was nothing like me. This perception changed when I met Valerie Mendes at the V&A; she was a curator and someone I could really relate to. I did a three-month internship at the V&A. That was such a lucky experience!
Before coming to the Museum of London in 2007, you worked as a curatorial assistant at the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Kensington Palace. You also taught fashion and design students at several art colleges and you worked at the contemporary art gallery ‘Annely Juda Fine Art’. What did you take away with you from these various experiences?
At Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Kensington Palace I catalogued their collection and learnt how much work it is to care for clothes in a museum. This also gave me the insight that I don’t mind dealing with all of that. By teaching, I realised how much I could learn myself just from talking to people and through discussion. I liked the idea that I could make a difference by talking to the students about their work. At the contemporary art gallery, on the other hand, I got to know how the commercial world works: you have to do what the client wants. I am quite shy but at these big art fairs I had to learn how to approach people. Unfortunately, I never enjoyed selling that much. I just didn’t get a kick out of it.
Today, you are Senior Curator of Fashion & Decorative Arts at the Museum of London. What makes this place so special for you?
I have been at the Museum of London since late 2007, which is the longest I have ever been anywhere. It was fun working at Kensington Palace but the subject matter was just quite narrow as we kept talking about the Royal family and the court. I was really pleased when a job came up here because the Museum of London also has ‘everyday dress’ in its collection.
What would be your ultimate next exhibition project?
Oh dear, that’s a difficult one. I am almost moving a little bit away from purely dress exhibitions. For a long time, I wanted to do something about ‘Love’. I would like to work around this theme because we have a lot of objects in the collection that connect to ‘Love’ in one way or another, and not just clothes. Besides that, I think that an exhibition on ‘things you wear at night’ would be great fun.
What have been your main research interests over the years?
I am interested in subcultures and youth cultures. I am most interested in the interwar period. I love the personal stories behind objects and I find myself wondering more and more how I can bring these out in a museum environment. You could easily write about them, or show them in a film, but in an exhibition this is really hard. That’s something I still need to crack.
What is your fashion obsession at the moment?
I am obsessed with bomber jackets!