Author Archives: Liz

The Personal is Defiantly Political in MoMu’s Latest Show of Transnational Textiles at Texture Kortrijk



Poster for exhibit with image of girl partially covered and accompanying text
Campaign Image ‘Textile as Resistance’ (c) Photo: Mashid Mohadjerin, Graphic design: Jelle Jespers

Textile as Resistance: The Power of Fabrics Without Slogans is the latest offering in MoMu Antwerp’s external programme of events whilst the fashion museum is closed for renovation and development. It is currently on display on the upmost floor of Texture Kortrijk, a fitting guest location given that this innovative textile museum is devoted to the international networks of exchange and influence that lie behind the local production of flax and linen in the Flemish province of West Flanders. Nestled on the River Lys, Kortrijk is home to linen damasks – originating, of course, from the Syrian capital Damascus – where locals pioneered a particular technique of production in the late 15th century, with a signature trademark of symmetrical patterns depicting hunting scenes, historical battles and biblical stories. Positioned at an apposite local/global intersection, the exhibition Textile as Resistance weaves together geography – telling stories of the land, nationality – telling stories of the nation, and identity – telling stories of the self, all narrated through the powerful storytelling medium of cloth.

Image of gallery interior with picture of woman hanging and pictures on walls
Textile as Resistance at Texture Kortrijk, (c) MoMu Antwerp, Photo: Stany Dederen
Three female dolls in textile posed on white floor with pots in background
Palestinian dolls in traditional festive dress made at the Ein El-Hilweh camp where 64 women are trained in this technique in order to preserve the Palestinian embroidery and heritage. Beirut, Lebanon, 2019, (c) Photo: Mashid Mohadjerin

Fashion and textiles are, of course, emphatically transnational phenomena, which operate across rather than within hermetically-sealed borders. We know that clothing is transformed by the different pairs of hands through which it passes –acquiring new values, serving different purposes, bearing the biographical traces of both maker and wearer. It is precisely this mobility – not least the privileged potential that fabric occupies as the connective tissue between individuals, communities, cultures and nations – which the exhibition curators take as their starting point. Whilst photographer Mashid Mohadjerin (b. Iran, 1976) and journalist Samira Bendadi (b. Morocco, 1966) conceived of the exhibition in Antwerp, the compelling stories of migration and diversity that it narrates expand far beyond the borders of Europe, unravelling identities and histories that stretch back and forth across the world. The curators were concerned, first and foremost, with the messages that textiles embody and disseminate as an insidious form of resistance – one that is frequently mobilised by women in response to war and crisis. The exhibition thus encapsulates Shahidha Bari’s acknowledgment in Dressed: The Secret Life of Clothes (2019) that clothing the body is a means of ‘turning out’, of mobilising a critical engagement with our surrounding world. It is a pertinent topic, painfully resonant amidst the European migrant crisis, which has witnessed more than 4,000 deaths in 2018 alone. Textiles as Resistance interrogates how clothing and fashion can respond to social and cultural displacement, reassuring individuals who are in search of their identities and a communal sense of belonging.


Image of gallery interior with photos hanging from ceiling and on walls
Textile as Resistance at Texture Kortrijk, (c) MoMu Antwerp, Photo: Stany Dederen
Image of street in Beirut with portraits of man and flags on old buildings
Street scene depicting two portraits of the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Beirut, Lebanon, 2019, (c) Photo: Mashid Mohadjerin

What is made clear from the outset is that neither identity, nor textiles, can be easily reduced to a singular narrative. Nor can they be straightforwardly mapped onto a spinning globe – especially when considered in relation to globally distributed production and consumption networks, the lasting effects of colonialism, imperialism and decolonisation, and asylum and migration in both the past and present. The large-scale map that viewers are presented with on entering the exhibition makes this point palpably clear. Antwerp is at the epicentre. From here, needles threaded with red cotton have been stitched across the map, drawing lines to locations as far afield as Nigeria, Morocco, Iran and Mexico. Russia appears vast, whilst the USA is far smaller than cartography normally affords it.  Geography is presented as a fictitious retelling. By logical conclusion, the viewer is encouraged to recognise that using geographical boundaries as a tool to analyse religious, cultural and national identities remains ceaselessly problematic. It resonates with the remarks of geographers Martin Lewis and Karen Wigan in their seminal text The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography (1996):  ‘we talk of African wildlife as if it constituted a distinct assemblage of animals’ and yet countries and continents do not neatly denote biological and cultural groupings. Similarly, the mapping of nations encourages a false understanding of the world as a jigsaw of discreet places that can be examined in isolation. African wax print cloth, which originated in Asia inspired by Indonesian Batik and was only introduced to the African continent in the late 19th century by the Dutch company Vlisco, is a case in point. The truth is that identity is situational; it involves both insiders and outsiders to the group, acquires new meanings as it travels, and remains in an inconclusive state of continually ‘becoming’.

Dilapidated staircase with wires and old advertisement on building
Shatila Refugee Camp, Lebanon, 2019, (c) Photo: Mashid Mohadjerin

Human stories, as the exhibition makes clear, often have the greatest currency, particularly those that give individuals the greatest prominence, both physically and emotionally. One of the subjects given a voice is Samira Salah (b. what was then Palestine, now Israel, 1945), who questions: ‘What does it mean to be a Palestinian today? My daughter has French nationality and my other daughter has German nationality because their husbands have these nationalities […] Nationality is not identity. Ultimately, the Palestinian issue is not a matter for Palestinians alone. It is a universal and human issue. You don’t have to be a Palestinian to embrace the Palestinian cause’. It is the process of enquiry that appears most cathartic in many of the stories narrated and is rooted in the painstaking processes of sewing, embroidering and textile printing, which bring makers and wearers together in intimate dialogue that transcends religious, cultural and national borders.  Another story shared is that of Zena Sabbagh (b. Syria, 1971), who lives in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, where she has transformed her living room into a meeting place for women to socialise, sew and share stories. ‘I don’t like the word ‘refugee’’, she explains.  ‘Refugees are people who have been forced to leave their country. But why not meet and get to know the others? I’m against borders. I’m for getting people to meet.’ Many of these tantalising snapshots of lives lived in the face of adversity are left deliberately untied. Whilst the exhibition catalogue provides further insight, the fragmented method of display fits the disjointed stories and memories that are recalled by the subjects, prompting speculation on the part of the viewer, who may feel inclined to fill in the gaps with his or her own thoughts, feelings and lived experiences of identity. It is this humanitarian aspect of the exhibition that resonates so profoundly with the viewer: these are human stories, and it is the very personal relationship that we have to clothing – our intimate knowledge of how it feels on our skin, how it moves on our bodies, and how it connects us to other people and to the world at large that the curators so expertly tap into.  

Woman sitting at table outside cafe in colorful coat
Zolaykha Sherzad, Afghan-born designer wearing one of her native inspired coats. She deconstructs existing pieces and reunites the textiles into in new pieces that reflect on new perspectives and hopes for a better future. Paris, France, 2019, (c) Photo: Mashid Mohadjerin


Man in colorful jacket holding cane and wearing black shirt and hat with other men in colorful garments in background
African Fashion Weekend at the Meise Botanic Garden. Brussels, Belgium, 2019, (c) Photo: Mashid Mohadjerin

Textile as Resistance is a pivotal contribution to the fashion exhibition landscape in Europe, which emphasises non-Eurocentric narratives of fashion and clothing exchange. Belgium, like most European nations, has a chequered history of colonisation, decolonisation, asylum and migration, the ramifications of which are strongly felt in the postcolonial present. Exhibitions such as this, by inviting a diverse range of nationalities, cultures, ethnicities, identities and histories into the gallery space, provide a necessary voice and visibility to the lived experiences of Belgian’s immigrant population. As MoMu Director Kaat Debo explains, ‘Antwerp is home to more than 170 nationalities. 183 languages are spoken here. The exhibition is part of our mission to make MoMu meaningful for everyone and to enable social, aesthetic and personal change’. It is a perspective that underlines the importance of global perspectives in shaping local identities, whilst reiterating that fostering strong local roots is not in opposition to sharing an international outlook. Just as ‘national’ fashion cultures are always mediated by ‘international’ networks of exchange, Textiles as Resistance marks a systematic shift in museum curation to present histories of globalisation as truly histories of the globe, rather than continuing Eurocentric histories of the West.  The success of the exhibition will ultimately be measured in terms of its ability to attract a substantial number of new audiences from migration backgrounds into the museum, and for the stories articulated to have an impact long after the exhibition closes on 16th February 2020.

Woman in black garment and pink scarf with child in red jacket in front of graffiti covered staircase
Malak Bakoor, has her own embroidery workgroup involving Syrian women in Shatila Refugee Camp. Beirut, Lebanon, 2019, (c) Photo: Mashid Mohadjerin

National Identity and Dress: Thinking about Brazil

I’ve been thinking recently about the ways in which dress and fashion connect to ideas about national identity. It all began when I started to question what ‘Brazilian dress’ might be. Is there any such thing as a national form of dress within Brazil? Simplistic outsider reactions might suggest the bikini or Havaiana flip-flops, possibly even carnival costume, but this probably tells us a lot more about foreign perceptions of Brazil – which tend to treat Rio de Janeiro as a synecdoche for the entire country – than of the lived experience of dress for most Brazilians. Nevertheless, in a country as enormous as Brazil, there is perhaps a greater need to construct a coherent national identity and embodied sense of belonging through the body surface.

Maybe ‘Brazilian dress’ could refer to indigenous forms of clothing? Such as the handmade jewellery and body tattoos, in combination with Western-style shorts and T-shirts, that are worn by the Kayapo, who live alongside the Xingu river in the eastern Amazon. Or perhaps it is the white lace ensembles worn by Afro-Brazilian women in Salvador? Baianas, as they are called, adhere to the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomble, and wear a hybrid fusion of sartorial elements that originate from Europe (the full-length gathered skirt with crinoline and petticoat) and West Africa (the headwrap, called an ôja, and beaded necklaces)? But these two examples seem to suggest that different clothing cultures within Brazil are geographically tied to region and ethnic identity, when even the vicarious armchair traveller knows that it is far more messy and complicated than that.

A baiana dress, displayed on a white model, at the Mercardo do Madureira in Rio de Janeiro. (Author’s own)

My difficulty in coming to a conclusive answer ultimately reflected the incredible flexibility of dress styles within Brazil. In all its variety, Brazilian dress tells multiple stories about its wearers – personal, local, national and transnational – as well as revealing the global flows of ideas, objects and people that characterize the interconnected world we live in. Cross-cultural exchange and influence is far from exclusive to Brazil. But it does come into much sharper focus within this heterogeneous world culture region, which sits so ambiguously (and not just in geographical terms) between the Western and the non-Western. The development of Brazilian dress and fashion reveals a long and chequered history of cross-cultural contact, slavery and immigration. It is a complex and fluid process by which Brazil, since it was first colonized by the Portuguese in 1500, has absorbed but also re-interpreted diverse influences that stem from its indigenous populations, as well as from Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States. From North to South, huge variables in culture and climate necessarily impact directly upon the clothing choices made by Brazilians.

Any attempt to define ‘Brazilian dress’ is a tangible reminder that national identity, like clothing itself, is not an intangible essence, but a material construct – an ongoing process of articulation and negotiation that depends upon where we are, and who we are with. As such, using geographical borders to analyse dress in national frameworks will always burst out of the standardized shapes delineated on the world map.

Introduction to the Courtauld History of Dress Journals Archive

The conference Reading Fashion Magazines may be over, but our display of 9 items from the collection is still available to be viewed outside the Courtauld Library vitrines. Please come and visit, before it closes in August. In order to tempt you, you can read the introduction to the display, and our conference, below, available for you to download in a pdf.

Introduction to the Courtauld History of Dress Journals Archive

Some of the earliest fashion magazines in the Courtauld History of Dress Journals Archive are on show in the exhibition. Here, Gazette du Bon Ton, Für die Dame and Pinpoints are displayed.
A view of the 1940s section of the exhibition featuring Harper’s Bazaar and Femina.
Elizabeth and three MA Documenting Fashion students after the completion of the exhibition instal.

Reading Fashion Magazines: Celebrating the Courtauld’s History of Dress journals archive

Fashion magazines provide a space for escapism and fantasy, but this imaginative realm of image and text is centred on the very real interactions that viewers have with these material objects. How does it feel to read a fashion magazine? Do you read it dutifully, from cover to cover? Or do you flip through more sporadically, waiting for something exciting to halt you in your tracks? Of equal importance is where we read fashion magazines. Is it in the silence of the library, inhaling the smell of the archive? Or at home, from the comfort of the sofa? Perhaps it’s on the tube, amongst the rush of commuters and the jolt of a train braking? These multisensory encounters all play a part in our interpretation of what we see – and read – within the fashion magazine.

These are some of the questions we are going to be thinking about on Saturday 6th May, at our conference ‘Reading Fashion Magazines: Celebrating the Courtauld’s History of Dress journals archive’. In celebration of the Courtauld’s recently catalogued History of Dress journals archive, our one-day symposium will examine how the fashion magazine has constructed and circulated social, cultural and political ideas concerning dress, body and identity.  In opening up the collection, we will examine fashion magazines more broadly as documents of the time in which they were produced, reflecting changing tastes and attitudes as well as social and technological developments. We will explore how the fashion magazine has been consumed by readers, whether glanced through or thoroughly read from cover to cover, and consider the sensory connections to be made between looking, seeing, being, feeling and wearing.

Speakers include Paul Jobling, Alice Beard, Rebecca Arnold, Lucy Moyse, Marta Francheschini and Maria Angela Jansen, will consider these overlapping themes from the interdisciplinary perspectives of design history, fashion studies, visual culture, sociology, and those working professionally within the field. The day will include a viewing session of some earlier examples from our collection as well as an opportunity to see a fashion magazine display curated in collaboration with History of Dress MA students. This symposium will provide the opportunity to question changes in the way that dress has been documented, worn and consumed throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, as well as to study the fashion magazine as image, object, text, idea and experience intertwined.

Booking is now open at the link below, so hurry!

Near and Far: Connecting Clothing, Body, Image & Object in Views of the Estrada de Ferro Madeira e Mamoré, Amazonas & Matto Grosso, Brazil

A page taken from Merrill’s travel album documenting the lives of workers on the Madeira-Mamoré railway in Brazil, 1909-1912.

During the MA study trip to New York that I co-ordinated in December, I was able to sneak away one afternoon to work on some of my own research in the conservation facility of the New York Public Library, which is located in Queens. I wanted to take a closer look at a bound photographic travel album that I had read about, entitled Views of the Estrada de Ferro Madeira e Mamoré, Amazonas & Matto Grosso, Brazi , which documented the construction of the Madeira-Mamoré railway in Brazil (1907-1912). Designed between 1909 and 1912 by Dana B. Merrill, an American photographer, and containing over 250 photographs and 16 poems, the album documents the tropical flora and fauna, diverse architectural and industrial structures in varying stages of completion, as well as the multifarious clothing of the various individuals who are subject to Merrill’s roaming gaze: U.S. engineers; Brazilian officials; workers on the track who had travelled from all over the world; and diverse indigenous groups within Brazil. Between 1909 and 1912, Merrill was governmentally employed to document the construction of the 367-kilometre Madeira-Mamoré railway in Brazil. The project, which cost $33,000,000, would aid the worldwide exportation of rubber from landlocked Bolivia by providing an outlet to the Atlantic Ocean. It was overseen by the U.S. engineer and businessman Percival Farquhar, who was contracted by the Brazilian government to construct a line from Porto Velho, a shipping point on the Madeira River in the State of Amazonas, to Guajara-Mirim on the Mamoré River in the state of Mato Grosso, situated at the border between Brazil and Bolivia. Such transnational contracts were not uncommon in the early decades of the 20th century, a period of increased Pan-Americanism as North America actively sought to expand its commercial, social, political, economic and military ties with South America, exploiting the commercial opportunities that existed in Brazil, whilst assisting Brazilian aspirations to be recognised as a regional power. The railway became known in the U.S. and Brazilian press as the ‘Devil’s Railroad’, due to the thousands of workers who died from tropical diseases and disaster during its construction. Through detailed examination of the album as a visual and material object, I’m interested in how images of clothing communicated these interconnected narratives of distance between North and South America in the early 20th century.

A page taken from Merrill’s travel album documenting the construction of the Madeira-Mamoré railway in Brazil, 1909-1912.
A page taken from Merrill’s travel album documenting U.S. businessmen on the Madeira-Mamoré railway in Brazil, 1909-1912.

I’m concerned primarily with the centrality of materiality as a formative element in understanding images of clothing within the photographic travel album. I want to develop a more nuanced understanding of U.S. and Brazilian modernity at the start of the 20th century, by recognising the distinctiveness of particular modes of dressing, as well as the complexities of the relations between local, regional, national and global influences that are embodied within clothing as well as the material qualities of the album. In order to achieve this, I’m interested not only in the different modes of dressing that are captured by the camera, but also the new meanings that are generated through the arrangement of images on the album page, their display in a particular sequence, and the interpretative possibilities that arise from the synthesis of image and text (in the form of Merrill’s handwritten captions). I plan to evaluate the connections to be made between clothing, body, object and image, as well as the collaborative processes of looking, seeing, being, feeling and wearing – on the part of the subject, photographer and viewer – that are entangled within the album and evident only through careful and close-up analysis. By acknowledging the centrality of materiality, images become active and reciprocal objects, operating across time and through space in altogether more complex ways than as merely passive documentations of authority and control. This is what particularly fascinates me about Views of the Estrada de Ferro Madeira e Mamoré, Amazonas & Matto Grosso, Brazil.

An unknown indigenous subject tries on different poses for Merrill’s camera.


U.S. and Brazilian doctors Lovelace, Cruz and Pena photographed by Merrill in Porto Velho, Brazil.


U.S. and Brazilian officials celebrate the inauguration of the railway at San Antonio on 31 October 1910. A man, fourth from the left, wears checked trousers and gazes directly at the camera. He strikes a pose that suggests he is overtly aware of himself as image before the camera, and performs accordingly

Welcome to our New MA History of Dress students!

La Donna, July 1934
Front cover of La Donna, July 1934
Front cover of Harper’s Bazaar, July 1936
Front cover of Jardin des modes, March 1952
Front cover of Jardin des modes, March 1952. Just a few examples of some of the imagery we will be looking at from our History of Dress magazine collections.

The new term has started and it is time to welcome our new group of History of Dress MA students to the Courtauld! Our course is entitled ‘Documenting Fashion: Modernity, Films and Image in America and Europe, 1920-1960’ and over the next 9 months we will be exploring fashion within an interdisciplinary framework – as image, object, text and idea.

Our course comprises two elements – a grounding in key theories, methodologies and approaches to studying dress history and fashion studies, followed by a unique opportunity to analyse American and European fashion and identity during the interwar, war and early Cold War periods. The first section of the course, which I teach in the Autumn term, addresses issues including dress as autobiography, sensory and emotional responses to fashion, and the development of the fashion industry and media.

The second section, taught by Rebecca in the Spring term, applies these ideas to focus on the role of different types of imagery as sources for fashion, dress and the body. We will re-evaluate the visual history of this key period, by starting from images of the ‘everyday,’ that show dress as it was actually worn, so that we can consider the impact of developments in film and photography on fashion. This will be examined in relation to fashion’s representation in magazines, from Life and Picture Post to Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.  The work of photographers, including Martin Munkacsi Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Horst P Horst will be examined, as well as designs by Madeleine Vionnet, Claire McCardell, and others.

We use case studies to consider relationships between looking, seeing and being – as evidenced through the links between and developments in readymade clothes, couture and representations of fashion in photography and film. We discuss what different media forms tell us about people’s perceptions of themselves and others, and how clothing can construct and alter appearance.  Throughout the year we will analyse how these images connect to body image, identity, ways of seeing, and modernity.

It’s going to be an exciting year of looking and thinking about dress and fashion, with a focus on America and Europe as sites of rapid developments in fashion, documentary photography, picture-based magazines and film during a period of flux – 1920-1960. Extensive online resources and The Courtauld’s History of Dress collections will be combined with visits to museums and archives in London, such as the Museum of London, V&A, the British Film Institute, Hampton Court, and in New York, such as FIT, MOMA, the Met and more, to study key example first hand.

We can’t wait to get started!

Georgiana Houghton’s Spirit Drawings

Georgiana Houghton, The Flower and Fruit of Henry Lenny, 1861.
Georgiana Houghton, The Portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ, 1862.
Georgiana Houghton, Glory Be To God, 1864.

I’ve recently been giving a couple of talks on Sunday afternoons in the gallery; it’s a great way of meeting some interesting people, and having a lively discussion about the works on display. My recent topic of conversation has been the Georgiana Houghton exhibition, a collection of 21 watercolour drawings that the British artist produced (ostensibly) through contact with the spirit world in 1860s to 1870s Victorian London. Houghton claimed to be in touch with various spirits including high Renaissance artists, such as Titian and Corregio, as well as deceased members of her immediate family, such as her brother Warrand, sister Rosalia and uncle William.

Her ‘spirit drawings’ are remarkable products of Victorian culture, and were produced about the same time that Claude Monet was painting the river Thames in an Impressionistic fog. If the fruits of his labour were seen as radical to a contemporary gaze, then how must a Victorian public have responded to Houghton’s endeavours, with their exotic colours and forms? Not very well at all is the answer. When she mounted an exhibition of her work in a gallery on Old Bond Street in 1871, critics responded with confusion, outrage, dismay, and bewilderment.

Nevertheless, Spiritualism had become very fashionable at the time in Victorian London, centred on the belief that contact with an ‘afterlife’ was possible through mediumship practices including séances. This fascination with the spirit world is unsurprising given the Victorians’ preoccupation with death. Not only did they introduce bells to coffins – lest any poor soul should be buried alive – but Victoria, following Albert’s death in 1861, elevated private mourning to a public level when she began to dress solely in black. With social and cultural upheaval in Victorian London, many women were beginning to enjoy greater private and public freedoms at home and work, and the dark environment of the séance room was a potentially liberating space for them to reside. Scientific expeditions were also gaining momentum during the period, alongside the doctrines of ethnography and anthropology, all of which reflected a desire to see and understand the surrounding world and, in doing so, find out more about the origins of man. It is perhaps only inevitable then that a question was also beginning to emerge of what might exist beyond life, and whether there was a contactable spirit realm.

Houghton’s work is fascinating for its pioneering use of largely abstract forms, which place her drawings closer in aesthetic terms to those of Kandinsky, or the Dadaists’ automated drawings produced in the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps a contributing factor in her lack of recognition – until now – is not simply that she was a woman, but that she was producing these works 60 or 70 years too soon, before the existence of intellectual frameworks such as Freudian psychoanalysis that might have been used to understand and contextualise her drawings. I wonder if Houghton might even have been a synaesthete – there is something incredibly emotive and multisensory about her use of colour, shape, line and form.

But it is important to remember that these drawings are far from abstract. For the artist, they were highly symbolic, and she produced detailed explanations on the backs of each of them, painstakingly pointing out the different representational forms to the viewer.

Whilst Houghton is perhaps not an obvious choice for a dress historian, there is something about the thread-like lines and vibrant colours of her drawings that draw me in on a very visual – and unequivocally tactile – level. Professor David Lomas recently observed what he described as the ‘hair-like’ forms present in many of these images, suggesting a connection to be made with Victorian hair jewellery, and pointing out the interconnected processes of looking, and wanting to touch, but potentially also being touched by, Houghton’s spirit drawings.

5 Minutes with…Jessica Akerman







The £1 Dress!

We caught up with Jessica Akerman – artist and research forum events co-ordinator – to discuss her wardrobe. In her spare time, Jessica has been dressing for London Fashion Week (Mary Katranzou last year, Paul Smith and Topshop this year), helping the models with the quick turnaround in between shows. She obviously has an avid interest in dress and fashion, whether she realises it or not, and follows the style instagrams @vonsono and @susiebubble, in between sourcing interesting pieces from carboots, charity shops, sample sales and vintage stores.

On the sunny Thursday lunchtime that we met, Jessica was wearing a fabulous corduroy pinafore from the shop Mint in Stoke Newington, bright blue sandals from Miista in Shacklewell Lane, and a collection of jewellery that included gold bird earrings bought in Westcliff-on-Sea (in a ‘fantastic second-hand shop’); a fun Swatch watch (‘I love Swatch, I love the designs, the colours’); plastic chunky rings; and a beautiful art-deco style pendant that contained strands of hair belonging to her two children. She was obviously suspicious about the prospect of being interviewed, and had brought along a change of clothes – her 1980s ‘jazzy shirt’ – but settled on the pinafore, which had its own interesting story to tell:

‘We were having our kitchen done up, and we didn’t have a washing machine, so I was spending most of my weekends in the laundrette – waiting for the washing to finish, wearing a tracksuit and a Friends of the Earth man’s anorak. I went and found this couple of really nice Cord pinafores in the sale space of Mint, put them aside, and went back to get some money out and check on the washing. When I went back to the shop, someone had put them back on the rack, and I nearly started crying. But the man who was working there took me around all of the rails, looking for the dress and looking on the arms of all the women in the shop. And then he found it, and sort of gently wrestled it off this girl, who gave it up begrudgingly… but he told her he would give her some money off her own purchases at the till. The thing is that I never buy clothes for myself, and I can never find anything that suits me, and I was feeling like a right trugger because I was in a tracksuit, and I’d been at the launderette… but it was a happy story in the end’.

Jessica has also had her hair recently re-dyed to its natural colour, and had painted her nails gold. We felt that this was important to mention, since she pointed these details out to us, and obviously has a keen awareness (as we dress historians do) of fashion not solely in terms of items of clothing, but all of the additional modifications that we attach to or adapt our bodies with. She was also enthusiastic to tell us about her Urban Outfitters brown leather bag, which was the product of some extensive (online) research, and brought over from the U.S. by her partner, taxes in addition. Unfortunately, she was somewhat disappointed by the quality, since the lining had already begun to tear. [If you are reading this, @urbanoutfitters, then please do get in touch and we can organise getting a replacement to Jessica]

When quizzed as to how she might describe her style, Jessica responded with the usual ‘hmmmm… I don’t know really’, ultimately settling on ‘eclectic’. I asked her how she negotiates ‘off-duty’ and ‘on-duty’ clothing – combining outfits for the Courtauld, doing the school run and being creative in her Ridley Road studio in Dalston. ‘I look for practicality mostly… I suppose it doesn’t differ too much between home and work, although I wear less make-up at home, and definitely dress up less’.

One of the favourite pieces that Jessica has ever owned is a 1980s dress with ruffled sleeves in green and black that she bought for £1 at a car boot sale in Somerset. ‘I was 8 months pregnant at the time, so I didn’t actually know if it would fit. But when Kit was about 4-months old I was able to go out, and that was very exciting… it was like I’d won a prize, especially because it was so inexpensive’.

Thank you very much Jessica, it was great to hear some stories from your wardrobe. If you’d like to find out more about Jessica’s creative work please go to:

Fashion and Impressionism in the Courtauld Gallery

In 1863 Charles Baudelaire declared in the French newspaper Le Figaro: ‘Modernity is transitory, fleeting, contingent’. He instructed contemporary artists not to ‘scorn or forgo this transitory, fleeting element that undergoes such frequent metamorphoses. By removing it, you lapse into the void of an abstract, indefinable beauty.’ The Impressionists wanted to capture the beauty and excitement of modern life in and around Paris, the capital of modernity, prior to and following the fall of the Second Empire in 1870. Their lively brushstrokes sought to animate the ephemeral and transitory qualities of Parisian modernity, as described by Baudelaire, and its recently established commodity culture, which was shaped by the imperatives of fashion, consumerism and incessant innovation.

Paris had emerged as a rapidly transforming metropolis, due in part to its swift modernisation by city planner Baron Haussmann (1809-1891), who fashioned an extensive landscape of wide boulevards, grand parks, avenues, squares and gardens throughout the city. This period also witnessed the evolution of the department store, such as Au Louvre, LesGrandsMagasins and Le Bon Marche, in which women could buy ready-to-wear fashions off the shelf that needed little if no alteration, not to mention the proliferation of specialist fashion magazines such as La ModeIllustrée and Les ModesParisiennes.

Artists at the vanguard, such as Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) and Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) breathed new life into the rigid poses of fashion illustration. They succeeded in capturing, above all else, the emotional connection that viewers and wearers had with items of fashion. Fashion served as the quintessential symbol of transitory modernity, encapsulated by the Parisienne, the elegant modern woman who was accustomed to suchbourgeois luxuries.

We can examine the fashioned feminine body in closer detail through three “snapshots”, each of which give a sense of the importance of fashion to the Impressionists’ priority to express modernity: Ladywith a Parasol(1870-2) by Degas, Portrait of a Woman (1872) by Morisot and La Loge (1874) by Renoir. These paintings exemplify how Morisot, Degas and Renoir made skilful use of oil paint to capture the light and texture of the various folds and shapes of the fabrics that adorned the bodies of their subjects and which, rather than give a painstaking reproduction of fashionable trends in feminine dress, revealed a sense of the visual effect that fashion as a whole conveyed by way of the movements and gestures of Parisian women from 1870-1874.


edgar degasd, lady with a parasol, 1870-72Degas’ Ladywith a Parasol is made up of quick, expressive strokes of black, grey and white oil paint on canvas and forms part a series in which the artist experimented with the results of light on the transient, fashionably attired female form. Degas once declared: ‘The source of ornament. Think of a treatise on ornament for women or by women, based on their manner of observing, of combining, of selecting their fashionable outfits and all things on a daily basis they compare, more than men, a thousand visible things with one another.’ Degas’ observations on women’s abilities to choose their own accessories and ornamentations from a plethora of possibilities reveal his active interest and participation in fashion. A label on the back of this painting reads ‘At the Race-course’ and explains the subject’s elegant appearance in a bustledress that is lovingly sculpted by the artist and draped over layers of petticoat, complete with a nipped in waist to emphasise the trim female form. A parasol shields the subject from the open air as she is captured from behind and in motion. The rough sketch-like forms give a sense of immediacy to this unfinished image, which is reminiscent of the couturier’s direct creative process as fabric was draped over a model’s body. The fluid application of paint highlights a dynamic contemporary femininity that the viewer is invited to experience by envisioning how the fabrics may have swished and undulated with an unexpected gust of wind, sway of the hips or flurry of activity. Other areas of the painting, such as the subject’s profile and the details of her exquisite headwear, are painted with great delicacy and reflect Degas’ unequivocal interest in the chapeau,which formed the crown and status symbol of any respectable woman in the 1870s and was inevitably matched to her visage and attire.


Berthe morisot, madame edma pontillon, sister of the artist, 1873Like Degas, Morisot paid equal attention to the materiality of female dress, as can be seen in a portrait of her sister Madame Edma Pontillon, which she completed in 1872. The painterly texture of her brushwork, which encompasses broad and delicate strokes freely applied, evokes the flounces, frills and ornamentation of the luxurious fashions depicted. As the only woman represented in the first group exhibition of the Impressionists held in Paris in 1874, Morisot had an innate knowledge of the individual elements of feminine dress, from underwear to day dresses, evening wear and outdoor attire. She depicts her subject dressed in a beige and chestnut brown day dress with pleated edging, a high waistline, and long, close-fitting sleeves, which show the remaining influence of pagoda-style sleeves that were fashionable throughout the 1860s. The bodice of her dress is V-shaped, filled in with a chemisette comprised of muslin trimmed with lace, and adorned with a splash of purple and mauve flowers. The subject wears her hair piled high on top of her head in a pleated chignon that is threaded with a silver ribbon. She shows off matching purple and gold drop earrings and a pendant that is strung on a black velvet ribbon, both of which reflect the decorative accessories prevalent at the time. A thick sash comprised of velvet envelops her waist to form a bow that places the decorative bulk at the back of her dress, and emphasises her curvaceous feminine form. Unlike Degas’ energetic painting, which gave a tangible sense of the rush of modernity through the artist’s frantic sweeps onto the canvas, Morisot delivers a quiet nod of appreciation to female finery through her carefully orchestrated and meticulously executed portrait.


Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_023Like Morisot and Degas, Renoir placed fashion at the heart of his paintings, as can be seen in an examination ofLa Loge which he painted in 1874. Renoir had an intimate knowledge of the technical and material nature of dress since his mother was a seamstress, his father a tailor and his elder sister a dressmaker, who in 1864 married the fashion illustrator Charles Leray. Here he depicted his favourite model and mistress, Nini Lopez, who is ostentatiously dressed in a fashionable tenuede premierein black and white, an ermine mantle, pink flowers placed in her carefully-coiffured hair and adorning her bodice, a strand of pearls, gold earrings and a gold bracelet, white gloves and conspicuous powdered make-up. This overt display of wealth may have been suitable for a married woman but Nini has an ambiguous relationship to her male companion, who is dressed in full evening wear consisting of a white waistcoat or gilet cut very wide and low, a stiffened white shirt, a starched white cravat, black trousers and gold cufflinks. This unclear relationship is expressed through the complex interplay of gazes presented in the painting: he raises his binoculars to scrutinize the other women displayed in their theatre boxes, whereas she sits perfectly still, seated in full view of her admiring audience, a smile playing across her lips, one gloved hand holding her fan and white-laced handkerchief, the other a pair of binoculars.It is hard to tell the exact material of the subject’s dress, which remains blurred by the Impressionistic style, although it appears to be of white silk chiffon with appliqued ruched black silk net. Such hazy and insubstantial fabrics would have appeared at their best in the evening, particularly under the artificial lights of the theatre which would have caused the various layers to shimmer and gleam in contrast. Her sparkling jewellery captures the viewer’s eye and evokes the visual and literal consumption so fundamental to fashion. Renoir produces a poetic interpretation of the more prosaic details of dress through delicate, softly brushed forms of varying colour and tones. His paint handling is varied and fluent. Forms are delicately rendered without crisp contours. Nini’s gown provides a strong monochrome and triangular underpinning to the composition. By depicting Nini in the latest vogue, which would have been unaffordable for both the artist and his model, Renoir hoped for recognition and the consequent monetary gain that might reward him with the upper-class lifestyle that he imagined his luxuriously dressed mistress within.

If we look at any of these three paintings we get a sense of the importance of public display and spectacle in modern Parisian life, and the significance of fashion within that as a vibrant non-verbal system of communication, indicative of wider social, cultural and economic meanings. The Impressionists captured fashion as a whirlwind spiraling towards modernity, which simultaneously inhabited the past, captured the essence of the present and was imbued with potency for the future. Whilst clothing might be understood as a stable and utilitarian form of dress, for Degas, Morisot and Renoir, fashion, with its affinity for transformation and innovation, was constantly shifting in a cyclical process.



Brazilian self-fashioning: Zee Nunes

I’m currently writing an article about fashion photographers working in Brazil for the next Photoworks annual on Fashion and Style Politics []. I’m really thrilled to have been asked, and in preparation I’ve been researching some really innovative image-makers, such as Jacques Dequeker, Paulo Vainer, Guy Paganini and Henrique Gendre. Sao Paulo-based photographer Zee Nunes [], is one of my favourites. Namely because his practice is so hybrid, drawing from a range of photographic genres that encompass ethnographic, documentary, still life, ‘realist’, portrait and art photography. He re-presents these cross-disciplinary influences in subtle and nuanced ways, evoking a range of different moods, whether light-hearted, euphoric, subdued, sombre or enigmatic.

A particularly interesting example of Nunes’ practice can be seen in an April 2014 editorial shot for Vogue Brasil and entitled ‘Glamour Berbere’.[1] This shoot was the result of a collaboration between Nunes, Brazilian stylist Pedro Sales and Afro-Brazilian model, Mariana Calazans. On first glance, Calazans is presented as an exoticised, North African beauty; at one with her lush natural environment, she wears heavy gold jewellery and luxurious Orientalist ensembles constructed from rich, tactile suede and heavily patterned silks. Staged against verdant foliage, the ambiguous images are reminiscent of Jackie Nickerson’s 2002 series ‘Farm’, which documented farm labourers in Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe against their working landscapes in thought-provoking portraits that addressed the role of the camera in representing, but also constructing, identity. As a white, European-descended photographer, it might be easy to discuss inherent power imbalances between Nunes and his female Afro-Brazilian subject, drawing upon issues of racism and sexism prevalent within wider Brazilian society. But a closer look at the images easily dispels such claims. Calazans is an active subject, and these images are far too performative and collaborative to be read in such one-dimensional terms of an active (white male) photographer and a passive (black female) subject. The images highlight Calazan’s agency in self-fashioning; she poses in such a way that the distinctions between dress, body and setting are temporarily flattened, and the construction of identity becomes a fluid and performative process. Although reminiscent of European ethnographic photography, these images re-write this well-established genre of domination and objectification in a sophisticated and self-reflexive commentary that serves to erode, rather than to construct, rigid categories of race, ethnicity and nationality.

[1] Zee Nunes, ‘Glamour Berbere: Silhuetas Retas e Elegantes, traduzidas em vestidos e túnicas luxuosamente bordados na típica e rica caartela de cor do mediterrâneo e norte da áfrica’, Vogue Brasil, February 2014, pp. 294-301.