Author Archives: Giovanna

Alumni Interview: Elisa De Wyngaert

Antwerp based alumna Elisa De Wyngaert, graduated from the Documenting Fashion MA in 2014. Counting Helmut Lang and Pierre Balmain among her research interests, Elisa has continued to write about fashion and contributed exhibition reviews to Belgian radio since leaving the Courtauld. After pursuing further study and undertaking work experience for Raf Simons and A.F.Vandevorst, she now works as a fashion curator at the MoMu Fashion Museum in Antwerp.

What made you want to study Dress History at the Courtauld?

I read Art History at the University of Leuven and wrote my MA dissertation on “The House of Balmain: Before and After Pierre Balmain”. This research process was new and fascinating to me, especially as it was very different from my previous art historical research. I found it challenging to analyse proper academic sources and it took longer to determine the correct methodology. That being said, it was exciting and I couldn’t wait to specialise in this kind of research, and to find the right academic guidance to do so. I believe I Google’d something along the lines of “Academic Fashion Studies”, and the course ‘Documenting Fashion’ at the Courtauld Institute of Art seemed to offer just what I was looking for. I knew Rebecca Arnold’s name because I proudly owned some of her books – it was a perfect match.

Pierre Balmain Atelier (1952). Copyright: Vogue Paris via Tumblr
Pierre Balmain Atelier (1952). Copyright: Vogue Paris via Tumblr

What were your personal highlights from the course?

Looking back, I think the strength of the course lies in its intensity: it was an unbelievably enriching year, both academically and personally. It was a high-paced course and it is astonishing how much you can learn in just one year. Being surrounded by fellow students who are as passionate as you are about their topic is inspirational, and, it goes without saying, having Rebecca as a tutor was priceless. Not only is she an outstanding scholar who challenges her students, she also has a great sense of humour. Again a good match. 

You wrote you dissertation on Helmut Lang, what was it that inspired you about his work?

I knew Helmut Lang’s work from images in books about fashion in the 1990s. He was, however, still an enigmatic designer to me: I was not prejudiced with knowledge, nor was I a longtime admirer of his work. I thought it was interesting that Helmut Lang decided to leave his fashion house in 2005 to “move on to art”. In this narrative, it appeared that being an artist is still in certain aspects regarded as higher than fashion in the hierarchy of the arts. After leaving his house, Lang decided to shred his archive and use the shredded pieces in an art installation. This, however, only happened after he had donated a large volume of his most interesting designs to fashion museums worldwide. The idea of a designer curating his own end, leaving the fashion world infected with infinite Helmut-Lang-nostalgia, was the starting point for my research. I got to appreciate the characteristics of Helmut Lang’s sensuous work, especially after studying it closely in the archives of the fashion museum in Bath and MoMu in Antwerp.

Google search screenshot of Helmut Lang Art Installations
Google search screenshot of Helmut Lang Art Installations

Since leaving the Courtauld you have worked for Raf Simons and A.F.Vandevorst, as a personal fan I would love to hear a little more about what your work experience was like with these?

I didn’t like the idea of becoming a “fashion writer high up in her ivory tower”, so I decided to do a course in Fashion Management and to get hands-on work experience with Antwerp designers. I undertook a short internship at Raf Simons. Raf Simons’ company in Antwerp is surprisingly small-scaled but has a high impact on fashion, which is an important characteristic for independent Antwerp designers. After that, I was hired by A.F.Vandevorst, where I worked for more than a year. I learned about the logistics behind the production of a collection. We often tend to focus on the shows and the magazine editorials, but we don’t always realise that after that there is quite a long and tumultuous road before those pieces end up safely in the stores and with the customer. A.F.Vandevorst has a small but strong creative team and the energy leading up to a fashion show is incredible. You can’t compare that to anything. In general, I was happy to learn that these brands are still authentic and true to their DNA and signature.

What else have you worked on since leaving the Courtauld?

During the week I worked at A.F.Vandevorst and on occasion I gave guided tours in the evening at MoMu. In the weekends, I created time and peace to focus on what I am most passionate about: the less commercial but more reflective side of fashion. I wrote a piece for Vestoj on Helmut Lang and I wrote some shorter articles for the new Bloomsbury Fashion Photography Archive. As a fashion critic, I reviewed fashion exhibitions for Klara, a Belgian radio station. By now, I think I have reviewed more than 20 fashion exhibitions, which proved to be not only insightful, but also my favorite adrenaline kick.

From what I understand you are currently working at MoMu as a curator. What does your work there entail and what current projects are you working on?

MoMu organises two major exhibitions a year, one of these focuses on a theme and the second one on the work of a living designer. We want to expand this offer with a (rotating) permanent exhibition on Belgian fashion and an online exhibition platform. At the moment, I am researching and writing about the designers and the pieces in the MoMu collection to prepare this project. MoMu actively acquires pieces by living designers, which ensures a rich and ever-growing contemporary collection. I discover new items every day and the challenge is to make a sensible selection of pieces per designer that haven’t been displayed too often, and that are telling for the signature of the designer.

Do you have any advice for budding dress historians? Particularly for those aspiring to work within fashion curation?

I think it is important to keep thinking about fashion the way we were taught to at the Courtauld. Often people look at fashion studies, and fashion in general, as something shallow and superficial. It can be of course, but we have to keep demonstrating how it is so much more than that: fashion remains an integral part of our society and daily lives. I know, from experience, it’s hard to find work within fashion curation. The only thing I can advise is to, even when you are working another job full-time, try to squeeze in some fashion history and research on the side and to stay both critical and passionate. And then maybe some serendipity?

Photograph of Elisa. Copyright: Elisa De Wyngaert
Photograph of Elisa. Copyright: Elisa De Wyngaert
Research in the MoMu archives in preparation of a permanent exhibition - dress by Dries Van Noten
Research in the MoMu archives in preparation of a permanent exhibition – dress by Dries Van Noten

Dissertation Discussion: Giovanna

What is your title?

Skin and Mirrors: The surface and self in the copyright albums of Madeline Vionnet.

What prompted you to choose this subject?

The subject of the first History of Dress Research Forum, Addressing Images event, was one the images from the photographic albums. After discussing the image, I went and did some research and realised that there was little writing about this rich collection of images, which were considered purely as a means of documentation for her designs and as copyright tools. My dissertation will consider how these photographs function both within and beyond the genre of ‘documentary’ and focus on how the visual tropes of skin and mirrors link to Lacanian ideas of the ‘self’.

Most inspiring research find so far?

I have just returned from a very exciting research trip to Paris! There I was able to see some actual Vionnet gowns at the Fashion Forward exhibition at Les Arts Décoratifs. Unfortunately I was not able to see the actual photographic albums held in their archive collection, due to them being in conservation. However I was able to see digitised versions of all the 75 albums, which in hindsight was good thing as there were thousands of photos to get through. Seeing the unpublished album photographs was inspiring as there were shots that really surprised me, including some half body photographs that looks strangely like prison mugshots, showing shirts that look as if they were designed by Ann Demeulemeester or Yohji Yamamoto.

Favourite place to work?

I love to switch up my routine and make sure that I work at many different cafes and libraries to best use all the (caffeine and) resources available to me. Of all the London libraries my favourite one to work at is the beautiful V&A National Art Library (preferably in a window seat overlooking the John Madjeski garden), but I normally find myself working more often at the British Library because it is more local to me and open later.

Photograph from the Madeline Vionnet Copyright Album (1935)
Photograph from the Madeline Vionnet Copyright Album (1935)
Two Vionnet gowns and a Schiaparelli cape at the Fashion Forward exhibition at Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris.
Two Vionnet gowns and a Schiaparelli cape at the Fashion Forward exhibition at Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris

New York Fashion Networks Stitched Together Through Sketch

Documenting Fashion goes to NYC Part 3

Eric de Juan
Eric de Juan fashion sketch embellished with glitter (1967-69). Caption reads: “Oriental silk in multi-hues fashions this gown…its waist and neckline, embroidered in beading that echoes the tones of the dress.” Special Collections at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Image Credit: Giovanna Culora

Elizabeth Hawes’ early career as a copyist was defined by sketching. Between 1925-1928 she would attend Paris fashion shows, acting in disguise as a genuine client, but in fact discreetly memorizing and then sketching the ensembles shown. It was through the power of her pen that she used the sketching medium to convey moods and communicate ideas from high fashion in Paris, and then disseminate these to networks of mass-production fashion counterfeiters. Hawes’ story gives a sense of how international fashion networks operated through this humble artistic medium, and was one that I reflected on when visiting archives on our recent study trip to New York.

Sketch from the Burleigh Subscription Company. Special Collections at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Image Credit: Giovanna Culora
Sketch from the Burleigh Subscription Company. Special Collections at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Image Credit: Giovanna Culora

During our time in the city we visited three manuscript and library archives:  The Fashion Institute of TechnologyParsons New School of Design and Condé Nast. Visiting these collections bought about the opportunity to see the different types and styles of fashion sketches circulating within New York during the early twentieth century. Seeing the volume of drawings gave me a sense of how this medium held a certain power in parallel to photography, within interconnected fashion design, copying and publicity networks.

Students viewing sketches in the Manuscript Collection at FIT. Image Credit: Giovanna Culora.

On our visit to the Parsons New School archive we viewed sketches by designers Claire McCardell and Mildred Orrick. The bulk of McCardell’s works from the early 1930’s to the late 50’s were produced for clothing manufacturer Townley Frocks, it was her working sketches from this period that particularly fascinated me. The minimal front-facing designs were made up by few lines, on geometric limbless figures, positioned to the left of the page; bar a few quick notes scribbled in the corners, masses of blank space was left on the many sheets. McCardell’s simple colorless designs were completely contrasted with the more commercial sketches we viewed at FIT.

‘Yellow Pants’, Claire McCardell fashion sketch for Townley Frocks, (1951). Image Credit: Parsons New School of Design Archive.
‘Yellow Pants’, Claire McCardell fashion sketch for Townley Frocks, (1951). Image Credit: Parsons New School of Design Archive.

Assisted by April Calahan, whose academic interest is in this area of dress history, we saw examples of other designers’ sketches, including Edward Molyneux’s colorful, detailed fashion plates with risqué titles for Lucile (The Lady Duff Gordon collection, 1915-1925), plus sketches from the Bergdorf Goodman custom salon collection, showing gowns and millinery from Dior and Balenciaga (1930-1969). Both sets of sketches, intended for client and documentary purposes, were emblematic of contemporary fashion moods that populated the fashion press, evident on our visit to Condé Nast’s archive, in which we viewed sketches artists were commissioned to produce for Vogue magazine. Proving the importance of this modest, yet romantic artistic medium for contemporary fashion networks and the creation of elevated lifestyle brands.

Edward Molyneux’s sketch for Lucile (The Lady Duff Gordon collection, 1915-1925). Caption reads: “♯1 ‘Where the Shannon River Flows’ Black Taffeta with grey and green stripe afternoon gown.” Special Collections at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Image Credit: Giovanna Culora.

Though the medium imbued designers, department stores and the magazines with prestige, sketching was also a quick and discreet way to copy and disseminate designs. This was evident in the Cardinal Fashion Studios’ sketches at FIT, the subscription service, founded in 1948, which disseminated sketched copies of fashions shown at couture shows. Reminiscent of contemporary Pop Art, the drawings were coloured with brightly concentrated acidic gouache washes. The quantities of reproduced sketches were a reflection of popular networks of copying and mass production in New York. I was fascinated with how this contemporary artistic theme crossed into the business of fashion sketching. Seeing how these networks of fashion sketching operated in New York was a fascinating experience that I hope will influence my study of dress history at the Courtauld.


Black Rose ballgown from the Cardinal Fashion Studios’ sketches. Special Collections at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Image Credit: Giovanna Culora
Black hooded dress from the Cardinal Fashion Studios’ sketches. Special Collections at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Image Credit: Giovanna Culora


Thinking Pink Outside the Classroom

In addition to studying Rebecca Arnold’s MA at the Courtauld, I also work as a gallery assistant at Christie’s. In this part time role I work across various sales, engaging with clients, specialists and a wide range of art and historical objects. By lucky and unexpected chance, I occasionally come across wonderful treasures relating to dress history. It was on my shift attending the ‘Old Master & British Drawings & Watercolours’ December sale viewing, that I discovered an illustration by George Barbier. Made in 1925, the costume study, likely intended for a theatrical production, depicts a poised lady drinking a cup of tea, wearing a dramatic gown in a buffoon-style 19th century silhouette. Dress historians may well be familiar with Barbier’s Art Deco style illustrations, made famous by his collaboration with Paul Poiret. The graphic artist was also involved in creating and documenting sumptuous costume and set designs for the theatre. Though I had previously encountered printed examples of Barbier’s work, this was the first time I had seen an original drawing. What struck me about this sketch was the paradoxical play between and historical accuracy and dramatic artificiality.

A lady in a floral dress holding a cup of tea signed and dated 'GEORGE/ BARBIER/ 1925' (recto) and extensively inscribed and titled [...] “La tasse de thé/ Séraphine en rose et noir [...]' and with stamp '147 E' (verso), George Barbier (Nantes 1882-1932 Paris), traces of pencil, pen and black ink, grey wash, watercolour, height 26.3; width 20.4 cm.  Copyright: Christie’s.
A lady in a floral dress holding a cup of tea signed and dated ‘GEORGE/ BARBIER/ 1925′ (recto) and extensively inscribed and titled […] “La tasse de thé/ Séraphine en rose et noir […]’ and with stamp ‘147 E’ (verso), George Barbier (Nantes 1882-1932 Paris), traces of pencil, pen and black ink, grey wash, watercolour, height 26.3; width 20.4 cm.
Copyright: Christie’s.
Portrait of Lady Adelaide Stanhope, Alfred Edward Chalon (1780-1860), Watercolour, bodycolour on paper, height: 35 cm; Width: 27.1 cm.  Copyright: © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
Portrait of Lady Adelaide Stanhope, Alfred Edward Chalon (1780-1860), Watercolour, bodycolour on paper, height: 35 cm; Width: 27.1 cm.
Copyright: © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
















The gown’s silhouette, tightly corseted at the waist, with a ballooning skirt, reminded me of an earlier sketch our class encountered in the Courtauld’s prints and drawings room. A half body watercolour portrait of Lady Adelaide Stanhope by Alfred Edward Chalon (1780-1860), shares many similarities with the upper section of Barbier’s illustration. From the straight cut across the bust, to the unnatural slope of the shoulders, the use of sugary floral adornments, tight shiny ringlets and passive gaze. Barbier’s graphic illustration disrupts this representation of soft femininity through the dramatic explosion of floral motifs cascading down the thick black band at the hem of the skirt. Barbara Matorelli, who has written about Barbier’s work, believed his conception of staging design consisted of uniting simple scenes with sumptuous costumes that were intended to stand out against the neutrality of a dark background. These costumes were perceived to be ‘theoretically accurate’ through their silhouettes, however their surfaces functioned like a canvas, through which Barbier could theatrically renew past styles, cleverly evading anachronism. This is particularly evident with the sketch sold at Christie’s, which fuses historical dress construction with a contemporary graphic illustrative design style.

Reference: Matorelli, Barbara. George Barbier: The Birth of Art Deco. Italy: Marsilio, 2009.

The Aura of the Polka Dot

By Giovanna Culora

As part of the Courtauld Institute MA in the History of Art students are required to sit ‘Methodologies’, a course that addresses theoretical themes related to art history. This week’s theme of reproduction considered how various texts, including Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, connected to images within our specific course sections. Benjamin writes about the loss of the aura, or the embodiment of the originality and authenticity of a work of art through its mechanical reproduction, namely photography. For Benjamin a painting has an aura because it is utterly original however a photograph does not as it is a reproduced image of an image. Whilst studying this text I began to consider how this played out in relation to the topic of my undergraduate dissertation, the Louis Vuitton and Yayoi Kusama collaboration (2012).

The collaboration was a huge global project for both the artist and the brand, which lead to seven concept stores being set up and windows in existing stores being overtaken by Kusama’s polka dotted sculptures and products for the collaboration. Kusama’s polka dot and the Vuitton monogram are pertinent to consider when considering the theme of reproduction. According to creative director at the time, Marc Jacobs, the ‘logos’ are similar in spirit as: ‘they are endless, timeless and forever’. Within the collaboration space the signs had no end point, they were serially copied to cover both surfaces and bodies. The polka-dotted and Vuitton logoed products became vehicles through which Kusama’s motif travels within the fashion world. This led me to consider how the mass-produced Kusama x Vuitton items of dress were reproduced in contemporary fashion and art photographs, and therefore connect to the idea of Benjamin’s aura.

Viviane Sassen for Pop Magazine, 2012
Jordan Donner Revolution Series, 2014

Two images that were pertinent to this discussion were by fashion photographer Viviane Sassen, and artist Jordan Donner. Sassen’s image originates from a series for Pop Magazine based on the collaboration (2012), and Donner’s is from his Revolution Series (2014), for which he exploded Louis Vuitton collaboration bags. The process that was taken to achieve these images support Benjamin’s quote: ‘the work reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work designed for reproducibility’. Both images were eventually displayed in solo gallery exhibitions, yet featured mechanical reproductions of Kusama and Vuitton collaboration pieces, which were made purely for the store space. In these images the mass-produced handbags, essentially wearable copies of Kusama’s artworks, subsumed by continually reproduced polka dots, were taken out of the manufactured context and presented as unique artworks; thus gaining their own individual aura through gallery display. The layered process of production and reproduction to create these images shows how items of dress can be displaced and reproduced to create an artwork in their own right.

Smelling La Serenissima: The Essence of Venice


“It was a windy night and before my retina registered anything, I was smitten by a feeling of utter happiness: my nostrils were hit by what to me has always been its synonym, the smell of freezing seaweed.” -Watermark, Joseph Brodsky.

 Over the Summer I was fortunate enough to visit Venice with recent History of Dress alumna, Lisa Osborne. The trip involved a plethora of visits to art exhibitions, including the mammoth Biennale. One contemporary art installation that truly struck a chord with me was Andrea Morucchio’s show at Museo di Palazzo Mocenigo, titled ‘The Rape of Venice’. Palazzo Mocenigo is a unique museum within the city that houses antique Venetian textiles and dress. It also tells the story of how a strong and thriving perfume industry was established within the region, recounted through an immersive multi-sensory display, in which visitors are encouraged to smell raw materials, essences, oils, soaps and perfumes. Morucchio’s installation complimented the display of the permanent collection by also incorporating olfaction.

Comprising of four cohesive, immersive and multi-sensory elements, including scent and soundscapes, the installation explored how Venice’s rare cultural heritage and environment is being destroyed as the city’s declining population means that it has transformed from a home for many, into what Morucchio calls: ‘a tourist theme park.’ Inside the one room show monochrome projections replay against the walls. Strong statements in bold typography, reading: ‘Population decline set to turn Venice into Italy’s Disney Land’, and ‘Venice is sinking under a tidalwave of corruption’, are headlines from the international press. Created from fragments of a deconstructed mosaic taken from St Mark’s Basilica, the kaleidoscopic stone floor is intended to emulate a ‘frozen sea’; pertinent as underwater sound recordings of traffic in the Venetian Lagoon and the evocative scent of ‘frozen seaweed’ were pumped through the gallery space.

 Inspired by the fragile lagoon environment, Morucchio collaborated with Venetian perfume company Mavive for months to create this salty unisex scent. Three hundred bottles possessing the limited-edition ‘Essence of Venice’ were produced and sold to visitors. The bold packaging of the small bottle, carrying this one-off scent, mimics the bold typography used for the graphic statements in the installation. Furthermore it also bares similarities to Jenny Holzer’s graphic series of perfume adverts, created in collaboration with Helmut Lang in 2000. Since the perfume could only be obtained from Palazzo Mocenigo, the scent recalls the memory of the installation, thus reminding the wearer of the deeper emotional journey through the city from which the smell was born. This is not the first time that the city sense-scape has inspired artists, for example the scent of London has also been explored by a recent collaboration between The Serpentine Gallery and Comme des Garçons (2014). The London-inspired scent, conceptually described as a mixture of grass, oxygen and a little bit of pollution, can still be purchased today and was produced and marketed to raise funds for the gallery program. This contrasts with Morucchio’s sensory adventure, which focused on the ephemeral nature of scent and the city.