I haven’t decided on a snappy title yet, but right now it could be called ‘Bodies and Borders in Jean Paul Gaultier’s Carnival Space’.
What led you to choose this subject?
I’ve been interested in looking at Peter Greenaway’s 1989 film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, for which Gaultier designed the costumes. During an early tutorial, Rebecca suggested that I consider it in terms of Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque, which has proven to be a perfect lens through which to view Gaultier’s work, and really captures its spirit. I’m now treating the film as a culmination of his work until that point, so I can look closely at the early years of his career, just before his fame really soared to another level when he did Madonna’s costumes for the 1990 Blond Ambition tour.
Favourite book/article you’ve read for your dissertation so far and why?
Initially, I loved Nita Rollins’ ‘Old Masters, Fashion Slaves’ essay because I love how she writes about the baroque sensibilities of Greenaway’s film and how Gaultier’s costumes operate within that. This is part of what sparked my excitement for the film. Since diving into Gaultier, I’ve really loved Colin McDowell’s book called Jean Paul Gaultier. It describes his work really nicely, but also integrates quotes from the designer which I’ve found to be amazing insights into his ethos and thought process.
Favourite image/object in your dissertation and why?
Greenaway’s film has been an amazing visual resource to spend time on. The colors are super saturated and it has this really dark, vile underbelly contrasted with the over-the-top interiors and costumes. I like that it can be so beautiful and appealing, and so grotesque at the same time. That feeling of discomfort is what appealed to me in the first place, and has been very useful for setting up discussions about Gaultier and Bakhtin. Plus, Helen Mirren stars in it and looks fabulous in all of her costumes.
Favourite place to work?
Senate House Library! I like to find a corner near a window in a section of a totally unrelated discipline to minimize any kind of distraction.
During a class in February, we discussed Gordon Parks’ 1956 series of photographs entitled Segregation Story. They were originally published in Life magazine as a visual documentation of the Jim Crow-era American South. His photographs highlight moments in the daily lives of African American subjects throughout Georgia and Alabama. At the time they were published, these photos were intended to foster empathy among white northern readers who were provided a powerful visual of how systemic racism permeated even the most basic activities: eating ice cream, going to school, or stopping at a drinking fountain.
Though I had seen many of these images before, one stood out to me in particular. Department Store, Mobile, Alabama depicts a woman and her young daughter standing outside of a door marked ‘Colored Entrance’. They wear their Sunday best, mother in a stylish pale blue dress, and daughter adorned in white frills, yet the neon sign above them reminds the viewer that systemic racism has relegated them to the position of second-class citizens. This image contrasts the fashionably dressed subjects in an otherwise serene moment with the glaring reminder of the segregation, hatred, and violence that impact every aspect of life. In this scene, notions of fashion and shopping are implicated into fraught negotiations of race and power in the American South.
When I considered this image again in class, I was reminded of another photograph, taken nearly thirty years later which shares similar iconographic elements, and perhaps likewise raising questions about how constructs of race and power are played out through fashion, shopping, and consumer culture. Anthony Hernandez’s Rodeo Drive #68, part of his 1984 series, shows an African American family posing for a photograph in front of the Gucci store on the prominent shopping street in Los Angeles. This series of candid photographs of anonymous subjects documents those who were out to see and be seen. Most of the subjects in this series are dressed in bold styles of the power dressing era, acting out a narrative of the decade’s fashion on a street filled with its vendors. The majority of these subjects are white and captured in action as they move down the street. For this reason, the family in Rodeo Drive #68 stands out, particularly because we see them stopping to be captured in front of the shop. The Gucci storefront connotes a particular association with luxury fashion and commodity culture, and perhaps posing with the curling gold text of the brand name serves as a memento of the visit. As Rebecca notes in her post, it is unknown if they went inside. Both of these photos, though taken in enormously different contexts, raise questions about how shopping can be simultaneously social, personal, and entertaining, and implicitly entwined in the nettles of race, class, and gender dynamics. Parks and Hernandez help viewers interrogate how we read constructs of race and identity in relation to fashion culture, and how elitist and exclusive spaces are imprinted with power.
At the end of February, Documenting Fashion’s MA class took a study trip to New York. Homecoming for some and the first time in America for others, these few days were outstanding, and we are excited to share our highlights with you.
One of my favourite parts of our study trip to New York was spending the day at FIT, where we explored their collections, met with their amazing staff and visited two temporary exhibitions: Fabric in Fashion, which looked at how textiles affect the silhouette of 250 years of Western fashion, and Exhibitionism: 50 Years of the Museum at FIT. Exhibitionism was a fabulous and fascinating show that reflected upon some of the museum’s most groundbreaking exhibitions over the last fifty years. Not only did it spotlight some incredible pieces in their collection, both historical and contemporary, but also gave insight into the curatorial thought process. I loved the self-reflexive nature of the exhibition, where objects were grouped by how they were used in past shows. The text panels accompanying various exhibits explained the nature of each show and what curators were attempting to explore. This framing was particularly helpful, as we’re currently working on our Virtual Exhibitions for our MA course, and Exhibitionism essentially mapped out the thought process and approach taken by curatorial and academic all-stars like Valerie Steele. It also introduced me to the work of curators with whom I wasn’t familiar, including Emma McClendon, who we then had the pleasure of meeting as she shared some of FIT’s couture collection with us! Furthermore, it taught me a lot about the goals of the institution to maintain an academic approach in their focused and thoughtful exhibitions, and its role as a teaching museum.
It was also fun to walk through and catch glimpses of past exhibitions which I hadn’t seen, including Gothic: Dark Glamour from 2009 and China Chic: East Meets West (1999). The labels accompanying each object also listed other shows that they had been used in, highlighting the various ways one garment can be interpreted. The exhibition as a whole was spectacular, visually appealing and cohesive, despite the vast range of objects included. The introductory wall text mentioned how this exhibition helps look towards the museum’s future by reflecting on the past: a sentiment that I think is so vital to considering how fashion collections operate, and to thoughtfully growing and changing as an institution.
For the most recent essay for our MA course, I researched the history of the Jewish garment industry in London, particularly during the interwar period. My interest in this topic began when Rebecca mentioned an exhibition called Broken Threads, staged in Vancouver in 2007, that explored the decimation of the Jewish fashion and textile industries in Germany and Austria during the Nazi regime. Despite knowing that Jewish people had a long history as tailors and clothing merchants, and that a huge part of the Nazi agenda was to destroy Jewish businesses, I had never connected the dots. I realized that I had stumbled across an enormous legacy throughout Europe and America that is often forgotten, and contemporary scholarship is just beginning to study it.
As my research continued, Rebecca suggested I focus specifically on the case of London so I could access collections and archives in the city. Eventually, my final paper focused predominantly on the menswear retailer Montague Burton, a Russian Jewish immigrant who dominated his sector, owning 600 shops by 1939 all over the United Kingdom. A key component of his success was that he was able to rely on the ethnic economic niche of Eastern European Jews working in the tailoring industry. They provided both a community into which he could enter upon arriving in England, and, later, a workforce to employ in his enormous Leeds factory.
Burton was not unique in his reliance on the Jewish community for his entrepreneurial success. Morris Cohen, a lesser-known figure in this history, is regarded as the grandfather of London’s Jewish garment industry, as explained by Anne Kershen. His name has now effectively faded into oblivion, but his contributions have long outlived him and deserve recognition. He was an Eastern European Jewish immigrant who began in London as a gentlemen’s tailor, but eventually moved over to the women’s ready-to-wear sector, capitalizing on an enormous growth industry as women were becoming more economically active and independent in the 1920s and 1930s. Kershen describes Cohen as opportunistic and entrepreneurial as he built a mantle manufacturing factory using expertise working as a tailor for the Russian Court. Eventually, through his success in this area, he was able to employ many of his friends and neighbors in his community. He was very successful in this business, but his most significant contribution was in planting the seeds for future growth in his community.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Cohen bought thirty-nine houses in Albert Square, building workshops in the rear and renting them to workshop masters, primarily in the mantle-making industry. According to Kershen, he was a ‘considerate and caring landlord who … in addition gave his tenants advice on the most economical ways to purchase raw materials and organize their production’. He saw potential in his tenants to become major players in a growth industry. Among these individuals were the founders of Alexon, Windsmoor, and Ellis and Goldstein, all of which became successful companies in the following decades. Though Cohen’s name is not as well-known as someone like Burton, he played a fundamental role in nurturing the Jewish economic niche in London, which eventually became one of the most successful womenswear manufacturers after the Second World War. His biggest contribution was to invest in his community, believing in the potential to transform Jewish immigrants working in the sweated trade into major entrepreneurs in the twentieth century fashion industry.
Kershen, Anne J. ‘Morris Cohen and the Origins of the Women’s Wholesale Clothing Industry in the East End’, Textile History 28, no. 1 (1997), p. 39-46.
I visited Brussels over the holiday and had the pleasure of spending a few hours at the Fashion and Lace Museum. Their current exhibition, Back Side: Fashion from Behind, emphasizes the backs of the body and of the backs of garments, quite literally flipping the perspective on viewing fashion in a museum. It asks what is revealed or conveyed on the back of the body, which, according to their press kit, the human being has an ‘ambiguous’ relationship with because it is constantly decorated by fashion, yet remains unseen by the wearer. The show integrates 70 pieces, spanning a period of 400 years, from haute couture to ready-to-wear, and which help to explore the subject from many angles.
I most enjoyed the broad range of objects, but also the curatorial choices that were made to display the garments and communicate with the viewer. Many objects were shown with the back facing the viewer, often in a case with a mirror so the front could often be seen (reminiscent of Madeleine Vionnet’s photographs of models whose fronts were revealed by mirrors). Very few of them were visible in the round. It struck me that only being able to see the backside of a garment, with limited visual access to the front, produced a certain discomfort due to the restricted vision. Normally, we focus attention to the front sides of clothes, whether on our own bodies or others. It felt to me that I was being denied access to the part of a garment I am most used to seeing, and effectively made me consider the ‘ambiguous’ relationship we have to this side of the body.
The exhibition also highlighted the differing notions of the back as something hidden or forgotten, versus revealed or as an erotic focal point. One display case highlighted examples of the ‘forgotten’ back, including waistcoats embroidered on the front and plain fabric on the back, and one contemporary Lanvin dress with an embellished front of white, densely layered material, and an entirely black back, exposing the zipper and showing the ground on which the layers were attached. The back of this silhouette allowed the construction to reveal itself. Later, the erotically exposed back was demonstrated through the photographs of Jeanloup Sieff, which tread a line between fashion images and tantalizing photos of the female body.
Back Side asks the viewer to see the body in three dimensions, and reconsider how we relate to the unseen sides of our own bodies. It succeeds in mixing historical and contemporary dress, high and low fashion, glamorous and bizarre (a Rick Owens ‘outfit’ comes to mind, in which one outfit is attached to another like a backpack and would have been work by two models, one carried by the other). In addition to the joy of viewing beautiful objects, I most appreciated how the curation allowed such a simple change in perspective to become a rich and complex exploration of the back side through fashion.
Last year, I wrote my BA dissertation about the portraits by American painter Kehinde Wiley. He is known for featuring African American subjects wearing contemporary street clothing in positions taken from the Western canon of portraiture. Typically, the subjects portrayed are not identifiable, but take on the poses of rulers of history, removed from their context and painted against lush, decorative backgrounds. After finishing his MFA at Yale University in 2001, Wiley began displaying his work in the early 2000s, bringing grandiose images of black and brown bodies dressed in street wear into white gallery and museum spaces. My project in regards to his oeuvre questioned the utility of this kind of portraiture, simultaneously hyper-real and mythologizing, in terms of the politics of representation of blackness in the visual sphere.
In these paintings, fashion associated with the visual culture of hip-hop becomes the uniform for Wiley’s subjects. They pose in baggy jeans, chains, puffer jackets, sports jerseys, and popular clothing brands, which are remarkable for two reasons: it is rather shocking to see these casually dressed, ‘cool’ black figures assuming the position of a Van Dyck portrait, but also because it was nearly unprecedented to see this kind of fashion hanging on the walls of a museum space. While European portraits of rulers certainly utilize a visual language of opulence and excess in dress, seeing contemporary ‘bling’ in such an image is rather unusual. Wiley has produced dozens of paintings like these, and critics have suggested that these images have become formulaic. Arguments that these works have a homogenizing, flattening effect over the representation of black life in America have substantial foundations in the repetition of similar iconographies. It is true that Wiley’s paintings are not a representative cross section. They saturate the art market with images of African Americans of a singular social milieu, and rely on stereotypes perpetuated in news media and popular culture of a young black man as a thug or a pompous rapper. On one hand, these paintings introduce a new figure and fashion into the canon of formal portraiture, but risk commodifying the image of ‘coolness’ further than it already has been.
Concurrently with the early years of Wiley’s career, an exhibit opened at the V&A called Black British Style (October 2004-January 2005) which displayed clothing, photographs, and other objects to explore the many notions of fashion in the legacy of the African diaspora, particularly on the African continent, in Jamaica, Britain, and the United States. It spanned many styles, geographies, and times, and blended artifact and image, and narrative and memory, to contribute to the building of an archive of African diasporic history in the legacy of slavery and erasure. Addressed within the exhibit was the fashion of hip-hop culture in contrast to African-inspired fashion in the West. Black Style, the book published in conjunction with the exhibit, notes that hip-hop subverts ‘establishment notions of racial difference through cutting-edge styles that throw back in the face of mainstream America its own stereotypes of inner-city black youth.’ At the same time, hip-hop dress has been continuously co-opted by mainstream white culture, and, like in Wiley’s paintings, can signal popular commodified fashion. However, the display of this style of dress within such an institution was rather groundbreaking. As curator Carol Tulloch noted, ‘It really was a landmark event for a major national institution like the V&A. One magazine wrote: “The fact that the V&A has batty riders on display is worth the £6 entry on its own.”’
Wiley’s portraits and the V&A’s exhibition entered the mainstream art world around the same time, bringing representations of hip-hop fashion into elitist white museum and gallery spaces. They worked in opposite visual languages – one of fantasy, myth, and the art historical canon, the other creating a documentarian notion of ‘truth’ – but attempted to work within the same system to call out stereotypes about the black body. Wiley’s paintings utilize the visual language of visibility; Black British Style the currency of archival information and objects. Although bringing representations of black style into these spaces requires a careful negotiation of celebration versus commodification and appropriation, the dressed black body became visible and present where it had not been before, and has opened a door to more diverse representations of dress and the bodies that occupy it.
Lewis, Tim. “Carol Tulloch: ‘Dressing Well Is Almost Part of the DNA in the Black Community’.” The Guardian. March 06, 2016. Accessed December 01, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/mar/06/carol-tulloch-black-style-the-birth-of-cool-interview.
Tulloch, Carol. Black Style. London: V & A Publications, 2005.
I first learned of contemporary artist Zoe Buckman’s work two years ago when I read about her solo exhibition, Every Curve, at Papillon Gallery in Los Angeles. I was fascinated by her project, which incorporates hand-embroidered text onto women’s vintage lingerie. The words Buckman included are lyrics from hip hop songs that make reference to women, often with sexist overtones. She has explained that she grew up in East London listening to rappers like Biggie and Tupac, and that their lyrics had an impact on her consciousness. Her body of work reconciles her love of hip hop with her feminist beliefs.
Buckman selected garments from the beginning of the 1900s through the 1960s, which demonstrate changing ideals of the female body over the course of the 20th century. There is a sort of nostalgic pleasure in looking at the delicacy and feminine beauty of vintage lingerie. Juxtaposed with the toughness and machismo of hip hop, I saw Buckman’s work as an act of rebellion. I also appreciated the nod to the historically feminine craft of embroidery used to express song lyrics with masculinist, womanizing content. Generally, I found this project playful and lighthearted, a fun contrast between two disparate things I enjoyed personally.
Since 2016, there has been a rather alarming turn of events in the arena of American media. We have seen the election of a President who boasts of grabbing women ‘by the p****’, the confirmation of a Supreme Court judge accused of multiple sexual assaults, and the outpouring of women who have exposed prominent Hollywood figures of sexual misconduct igniting the #MeToo movement. All of this is rather appalling, but not new. This is the pattern of history, where dominance and privilege are rewarded with more power.
Over the past months, I have found myself often thinking about Buckman’s work. In the age of #MeToo, it has become painfully clear that women’s bodies remain a battleground, a site on which to reinforce patriarchal power through sexual violence. Reconsidering Every Curve again today, there is something eerie and disturbing about such intimate garments exposed in such a way. They recall a time when women had less choice, less freedom, and less of a voice. Strung from the ceiling together in a room, they take on a spectral quality, and among them we can hear the echoes of women struggling to be heard. These garments are intrinsically tied to female sexuality and femininity, and, when superimposed with the often domineering words of male musicians, become a symbol of the exercise of patriarchal power over the female body.
Previously, I appreciated the contextualizing of a male-dominant hip hop culture in terms of women’s dress, but now I understand them with a different kind of imperative, one that makes reference to violence and silenced narratives. Buckman’s work exposes the intimacies and intricacies of gendered power dynamics through dress, revealing and engaging with the nettles of difficult histories. Addressing violence currently and historically is an endeavor as difficult as it is necessary, and Buckman’s work makes legible a feminist struggle for liberation through the visual vocabulary of that which is most intimate and essential.
After seeing the Balenciaga exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum recently, and due to the hype around the Spanish designer that Paris saw shine, I decided to share with you another great Spanish creator that succeeded in the international fashion mecca. “El prestigio queda, la fama es efímera”, meaning “the prestige is permanent, fame is ephemeral,” is one of the phrases attributed to Cristóbal Balenciaga; and, in this case, applicable Spanish couturier Antonio Cánovas del Castillo who established himself among the big names of couture in The City of Light. We saw one of his in our visit to the Met Museum Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion exhibition, where I remember thinking that his story and creations need to be shared more often, so here it is a snippet.
Maybe you know all about Castillo, or on the contrary his name doesn’t sound familiar; or maybe, if you’re studying the restoration of Spanish Bourbon Monarchy in the 19th Century, you might think I’m talking about its first Prime Minister. You’re not far too off. Seeing his name next to the name “Lanvin,” might give you a hint of who I’m talking about.
Born in Madrid in 1908, grandnephew of the Spanish Prime Minister of the same name, Castillo left for Paris at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, escaping from the republican forces.
In 1951 Paris Match reported with an unusual realism, the crude situation that Castillo went through when he migrated, “with 32 trunks, suitcases and various packages, 26 years old and 18 francs in his pocket”, forced to live a life of what the reporter described as a “Russian migrant existence.” However, his luck changed quickly, and in a few months Castillo was initiated in the fashion world designing jewellery and accessories for Coco Chanel, thanks to the intervention of Misia Sert (famous pianist in Paris). Years later, despite of his differences (or because of them), Chanel affirmed about Castillo: “He has a kind of a latent genious. With him one must approach him as a ferret to make him get out of his burrow. Then it’s marvelous…”
Between 1937 and 1945 he worked for Paquin and Piguet, and even collaborated with Cocteau in his film “The Beauty and the Beast.” This was also the year when Elizabeth Arden convinced him to go to New York, where he became the house designer, and he started working for Broadway productions and the New York Metropolitan Opera.
In 1950 Castillo received a call from the Countess of Polignac, Jean Marie-Blanche (daughter of Jeanne Lanvin) who, following the death of Jeanne Lanvin in 1946, was looking for a head designer to revitalise the salon. His presentation was spectacular, with a collection of white sateen dresses. The success and recognition of his work was such that his name became a part of the brand, including its presence on the gowns’ labels.
He knew how to leave an imprint of his personality on his creations, without ever losing the “Lanvin” style of tailored dresses, full skirts and ankle lengths, and those feminine and defined shapes despite all the volume.
At Lanvin, Castillo experienced the golden age of his career as a couturier. For 13 years, he mastered collection after collection, gained the respect and love of the most demanding Parisian and international public, situating the name of the house and his own among the big names of haute couture at its peak time. In 1963 Castillo decided to establish his own couture house, only open for four years, with the unconditional support of two of his most faithful clients, Barbara Hutton and Gloria Guiness. During this time, he worked for private clients, theatre and film, which brought him a Tony Award for Best Costume Design for Goldilocks (musical) in 1959 and an Oscar for Best Costume Design for the British film Nicholas and Alexandra in 1971 (shared with Yvonne Blake).
As a final note, in 1961 Castillo hired a very young Dominican designer living in Madrid named Óscar de la Renta, but that is another story.
I’m very bad at coming up with titles and I’m still working on mine, but the working title is ‘Relationships Between Body, Fashion and Furniture: The Modern Chair in Mid-Century Photography.’
What prompted you to choose this subject?
I’ve always had very broad interests, academically and personally, that range between ancient and medieval art to modern design and fashion, so I really wanted to do something different and wanted to explore further (although I was hesitant to do so at first). I also have a soft spot for furniture, especially Mid Century Modern chairs, sofas and daybeds, so it wasn’t a very difficult decision to make. But the moment I decided that I wanted to talk about furniture and fashion was during our class trip to New York. Not only was there an exhibition on Bauhaus interiors (another soft spot) at MoMA, but also, on our visit to the FIT archives, I realized that we were all sitting on 1975 Eames chairs for Herman Miller, which to the amusement of my classmates, got me very excited. That is when I thought I had to!
Most interesting research find thus far?
There has been so much! But the most interesting find was seeing how most of the 1950s images I’ve been looking at portrayed men and women sitting for a photo (more specifically husband and wife). Unless the shot portrays them working (as some portraits from Charles and Ray Eames), the man is usually positioned behind the woman (most likely standing), more pensive. The woman usually sits on a sofa (a tad reclined – but never too comfortably). This creates a dichotomy between the man and the woman portrayed, of vertical and horizontal lines.
Favourite place to work?
I’m not a library person anymore, so usually spend most of my time at home or in coffee shops (where coffee is allowed). But I’ve gone to my parent’s house in Madrid for a couple weeks and my favourite place to work here would be the library at the Costume Museum as it’s always quiet, cool, and has glass walls with views to their garden (which is pretty amazing).
This magazine is an October edition of Harper’s Bazaar published nationwide in the year 1940, during the London Blitz. Despite the hardships of wartime, the magazine targeted the female upper classes, which were the only ones with enough purchasing power to afford it. With the costly price of 2 shillings 6 pence, it was a considerable expense that could feed an average family for one day. In contrast to DIY publications, Harper’s Bazaar relies on the desire to emulate the rich and powerful to disseminate latest fashions. With the upcoming winter, the issue centers around the season’s new fashions coming from the capital, presenting a wide array of greatcoats both furless and completely fur-lined, made mostly out of warm wools or commonly available types of fur like squirrel, mole, and rabbit. The effects of rationing clearly influence the choice of images which are plain in their style with scarcely any accessories and minimal display of jewelry, painting a picture of a simple, although fashionable, woman. The practicality of the inside contrasts sharply with the flamboyant cover which is aimed at defying the grim realities of wartime and giving people back the feeling of normality.
Looking closer at the front cover, we can examine it as a historical source from the era, a social history document that tells the historian part of the story of Britain in the 1940s, and more particularly its dress history. A closer inspection may reveal that the colours chosen in such a specific moment in history are not random. The predominant purple tones, which are one of the first elements that catch the viewer’s attention, are historically associated with opulence, richness, royalty and empire. The crispness and silky texture of the sleeve contrast with the other colours of the dress that look as if they are polluted with randomly distributed red dots. The grainy and wooly texture of the material creates an off-focus effect that contrasts with the smooth and well-shaded arm and the sharp colours of the jewellery that richly decorates it. Our gaze is naturally led towards the hand that holds the cigarette, a luxury item that was rationed and reserved mostly for the servicemen at the front. Smoking, at the time, was an activity reserved for the feminine elite, symbolic of the defiance and rebellion against the male culture and male-centred workplace. The model positions herself in a relaxed and mindful manner looking down upon the viewer in an almost spiteful way, suggesting her higher status. This projects an image of power and confidence, a new Britannia clothed in all the riches of the Empire, watchful and confident of her power to withstand the dangers that befell her.