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Alumni Spotlight: Elisa De Wyngaert

“You are always switching from disappointment to love and despair to admiration”

Elisa De Wyngaert graduated from the Documenting Fashion MA in 2014 and now works as a fashion curator at the MoMu Fashion Museum in Antwerp. In between, she worked for Raf Simons and A.F. Vandevorst, reviewed fashion exhibitions on the Belgian radio, and in the evenings gave guided tours of exhibitions at MoMu. I spoke to her about her career trajectory, her curatorial process, and her valuable advice on pursuing a career in the history of fashion.


JH: How was your time at the Courtauld, and how did it lead to where you are now?

EW: Before the program, I did my MA in Belgium in art history. At that time I wrote a dissertation on fashion and was looking for some guidance or for someone to teach me how to do academic research on fashion not just from a classical art historical viewpoint. I wanted to do another MA and it took me quite a long time to find the Courtauld and decide. It played a very big part in the way I think about the subject, which really shaped my approach to fashion studies and the way I create now. You reflect in a very different way on fashion—it’s academic, it’s sociological, it’s cultural history, but it gave me more than that. I think it is also very much about the emotional and personal layers of dress and sensorial experiences; it is a completely different way of thinking about art and fashion and it gives you time to develop your thought process and challenges you which was good. The Belgian University system is very different: the professors will teach you, you study books and books of information and then you will take an exam where you repeat everything they told you, but Rebecca is very different. She doesn’t just teach, but she enables you to teach yourself and that is something extraordinary. I remember the first few classes I was like ‘I want her to tell me everything she knows!’ but that isn’t the point. The course was very instrumental.

Right after I graduated I was mourning a bit, I was like ‘this is what I love but how will I ever do something that even comes close to this experience in the next years!’

JH: I’m feeling that right now! It is a scary thought really.

EW: It is a scary thought and I empathize with you and your fellow classmates. I felt very alone when I came home in that there was nothing like it and no one to reminisce with. I didn’t find people with similar experiences when I returned and no one knew where I could work. I applied to different fashion companies and they all understandably said ‘but what do you want to do here?!’

JH: How did you then transition to curatorial work? I think that is kind of the dream for a lot of us.

EW: The previous question is important to this, if you graduate and you hope to immediately find your dream job for you, your personal dream, then it is so easy to be incredibly disappointed. What I did—and it wasn’t easy to do—was that I went to work in a multi-brand shop, a few days a week, and half of the time I was doing an internship at Raf Simons. After a while I really needed full time paid work and started at A.F. Vandevorst where I worked on logistics, wrote newsletters, worked in the flagship store, packed boxes. It was very hands on, but in the evenings I gave guided tours at the fashion museum in Antwerp, and I also worked for the Belgian radio as someone who reviewed fashion exhibitions.

It is very important to make the transition, there are not so many jobs, and it is important to stay busy. It was also important for me financially to go and take a job rather than wait and write letters at home, and to have colleagues that I formed close friendships with. It can be an incredibly inspiring time even if it isn’t a job you will do forever. You will learn from everyone you meet on a personal and professional level.

I have to say working in a fashion house wasn’t the job for me but I learned so much from A.F. Vandevorst. I have so much respect for designers and their work ethic, for what they create, and I think by working for a fashion company, as a curator now I have much more empathy. If I ask for loans at different fashion houses, I realize that they have a different schedule, that they are so busy, their timing is different and their deadlines are different and it’s good to have insight into an industry when you work on the more academic side.

Work on different aspects of things you want to curate, learn and have fun in the meantime. I never thought I would find a job as a curator but all of a sudden I saw I could apply and I was almost sad, thinking “there is a position and I won’t get it,” so it also takes a bit of luck and serendipity and right timing. Don’t give up!

JH: I am interested in your curatorial process. During class we spoke to someone at the V&A about their curatorial process but I’m curious to hear more about how you choose exhibition subjects and how you get something approved and to the point of starting work on a show.

EW: We have to find a balance between designer exhibitions and thematic shows. The thematic shows especially lead to new ideas for future exhibitions. I like these because you can display a large variety of artists and designers and it allows you to work in an interdisciplinary way. Fashion is intrinsically linked to emotion, to society, to the world in transition, to people’s psychology and I feel there is a lot more to tell and the ideas seem endless, but it’s important to discuss these topics with external voices with different iterations, different viewpoints. I have learned that curation is more about listening than about speaking, it is more about including different voices, realities, perspectives, and you have to get used to the fact that you can find something interesting or relevant but other people might not feel that way.

JH: I’m just curious, when you were at the Courtauld did you have the virtual exhibition as an assignment? What did you do yours on?

EW: Yes – I did mine on the friendship and artistic symbiosis between Ann Demeulemeester and Patti Smith. I made an exhibition about sound and clothing coming together and it was very immersive (although it never actually happened haha). It was quite conceptual and I am still happy about it, I’m still hoping it could happen one day!

JH: That for me was a lot harder than the essay writing for some reason!

EW: Ah! That for me was the least stressful part, I discovered that I always thought I loved writing so much but I actually get such a thrill from making visual connections and finding new and personal stories so I am perhaps at my core more of an exhibition maker than an academic or a writer. I also love working on the publications for our exhibitions, getting all the texts from the different writers, focusing on some essays myself and finding the right images. It is kind of thrilling seeing things materialize, and that is something I learned from being on the fashion house side. I did really like the virtual exhibition but as a non-native English speaker I found writing that first essay rather scary.

JH: Are you working on anything now (that you can speak about)? Obviously we are in such a unique time, I don’t know if you are working on a project now and how the virus has impacted your work and how you think it might continue to impact the fashion industry and your cultural institution.

EW: We are now closed for renovations until 2021. I am working on the new collection display—this will be a new space where we focus on MoMu’s own collection. This is great because in our thematic or designer exhibitions there is not always a lot of space for our own collection, and we do have so many amazing pieces. We are also working on a book about the collection, and I am working on our opening exhibition and its accompanying publication. All very exciting!

JH: A lot of stuff!

EW: Also I’m on Rebecca’s Fashion Interpretations Network which is so inspiring.

When it comes to the crisis, we are mostly working from home, we are lucky in that we were closed for renovations anyway so we haven’t felt like we missed tickets or visitors as other institutions have, but I really do feel sad for other museums, galleries, universities, and art schools. Mostly for the students and artists who saw exhibitions cancelled, students who traveled from all over the world to get a degree somewhere, spent so much money on it, and now see everything stop. I really believe that our generation and the younger generations, gen z, are great activists and they give me hope for a better world and a better fashion industry, more woke cultural institutions, but there is so much work to do. I try to think ‘ok what I’m doing is not saving the world but how can we help, how can we make it relevant or in some way meaningful to some people’ because fashion is a very difficult industry, it is so damaging in so many ways but also so relevant, emotional, omnipresent, innovative and inspirational. You are always switching from disappointment to love and despair to admiration.

JH: Definitely, even just as a student I agree, I find myself thinking—especially being back in the US at the moment and things are really bad—I feel the same kind of ‘oh how can I be focusing on this niche subject when this is going on in the world?’ but I think art and fashion and the humanities will always be important and relevant.

EW: Like you say it is so important and I keep my fingers crossed that the government keeps investing money so that artists, performers, musicians…can be supported.

JH: I guess just a frivolous question to end on but do you have a favorite piece in the archive for any reason?

EW: Oh, many. I really like all the pieces we have in the archives that we collected from the wearer. As a museum we actively acquire pieces from designers so we will shop straight from the runway—those pieces are incredible but never worn, but I do really like it when we collect it straight from the wearers. If you collect it from someone and you also collect that person’s biography, their lived experience. For example there is one dress from Kristina De Coninck, a former model of Martin Margiela. It’s a flower dress that Margiela made especially for her, and it’s composed of many recycled vintage flower dresses that he collected from flea markets—it’s like a patchwork. The colors are beautiful, it’s quite see-through. We have a picture of her when she was in her early twenties wearing the dress in her garden, and I was able to interview her. Perhaps in 50 years some curator will think ‘oh, there is a story with this dress,’ and that excites me.

I really like all the garments that we have that display a typical Belgian surrealism. We have quite a few items created from discarded fabrics and recycled materials. For example, a beautiful bustier top by Ann Demeulemeester that she made with very simple hotel soaps which is incredible. We have an A.F. Vandevorst skirt made with corset closures, it is intriguing, and we have pieces by Walter van Beirendonck made of old blankets. When you see them up close you see the fun the designer had, the passion, the originality. These objects make me happy and give me a lot of belief in why fashion is relevant and not a frivolous thing, and why it is something that will always have a future as long as we believe in the next generation and don’t drown in nostalgia.

JH: I think I can kind of speak for the current cohort but it is such a scary time for us to be graduating and looking for work so it is really nice to hear from you and about your experiences.

EW: I often work with people doing part time internships who have other jobs on the side, I do remember it is not easy, but even if you intern for 2 or 3 days you can make it work. I think having those discussions when you apply and being very open about your options just for the sake of own mental health is important. Internships are really crucial because only then do you really learn which job would suit you personally. For example, fashion curating entails a lot of emails, conversations, loan agreements, production logistics, excel sheets, trying to find pieces. I find it all exciting, but I can imagine that some people expect it to be all research or library work and that is only a part of what I do.

There aren’t that many jobs as a fashion curator in a traditional museum but there are so many experimental galleries, new small niche publications, online platforms to get experience from, so be open to different forms of curating fashion. What Rebecca is also doing on her Instagram is curating fashion.

Students now have incredibly curated Instagram feeds, how we engage visually with the world changes so much. I find it incredible how much things have changed even just since I graduated.


[This interview has been condensed for clarity]

Nostalgia and Womanhood in the Victorian fin-de-siècle

In 1892, the British periodical Young Woman acknowledged that “‘There is no scarcity of women’s journals’” (Mendes). Britain in the nineteenth century saw a significant rise in women’s periodicals, increasing in volume towards the end of the century to address a changing social landscape and growing female readership. As the end of the century loomed near, women had begun to transcend the domestic realm and gender roles were increasingly challenged. Society saw the emergence of the ‘New Woman’—strong and educated, striving towards greater political agency—sensationalized frequently in the press. With visual and verbal representations of women each periodical put forth its own ideas about the female role, disseminating to women of all ages and social statuses their concepts of the ideal woman and home, fashion, arts, literature, and other female-oriented content. The ‘woman question’ of the female’s place in society was on everyone’s mind, male and female alike, as traditionally delineated spheres—he in the public, she in the domestic and private—were challenged.

Clare Mendes writes in her exploration of fin-de-siècle New Womanhood that “1896 became a watershed year in which ideas were being recalibrated, following the Wilde trials and the public burning of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. New magazines for women after this date had an important role to play in the reinvention of womanhood: would she retain her outspokenness or return to submissiveness?” She references a binary that is characteristic of the way late Victorian femininity is often depicted in the contemporary imagination, focusing on two oppositional gender ideologies for women—one of conservative ideals—the domestic and confined female lacking agency—and the other of progressive alternatives—the feminist ideal of the New Woman. This duality reveals itself further in discussions of Victorian dress, where the feminine and conservative has “often been examined in terms of its regulation and control of the female body”(Wahl), and the progressive characterized as an attempt to ape men.

Even in recent decades scholars have argued that through most of the Victorian era in Britain “periodical readers were offered a model of femininity as undifferentiated and uncontested, focused on the private and domestic as distinct from the masculine world of politics, law and ‘work’” (Ballaster). But this statement is in fact an oversimplification—in reality domestic ideology was neither uniform nor static, but rather full of tension and contradiction—a textual and cultural analysis of women’s magazines reveals numerous discrepancies within representations of femininity. Specifically, through a brief case study of an instance of late nineteenth century portraiture and its preoccupation with the past, we can see that the stable visual binary of domestic femininity or an aggressive new womanhood is a further instance of oversimplification that begins to collapse and reveal itself as reductionist. Victorian feminisms and Victorian women were not one neatly packaged thing or another. In reality, the female body at this historical moment acted as a stage on which disparate gender norms and ideas were played out and at times compounded, bringing to light the “conflicting, unstable characteristics of nineteenth century domestic ideology and femininity” (Ledbetter).

Edward Hughes, Georgina, Countess of Dudley, late 19th century, oil on canvas, in Lady’s Realm 1 (1896), 250-257. Photo author’s own.
Edward Hughes, Georgina, Countess of Dudley, late 19th century, oil on canvas, in Lady’s Realm 1 (1896), 250-257. Photo author’s own.

As we often turn towards the past in times of societal and cultural difficulty, nineteenth century Britain was in many ways obsessed with the previous century. In 1894, an exhibition was held at London’s Grafton Gallery devoted entirely to representations of feminine beauty and loveliness. Titled the “Exhibition of Fair Women,” over two hundred historical portraits of ideals of female beauty were put on display alongside miniatures, female accessories, and objets d’beaute, many lent to the exhibition by prominent social ladies of the time. Of the many masters displayed on the gallery walls—Holbein and Van Dyck, Goya, Velazquez—the exhibition’s viewers and the press seemed to agree that it was the English masters of the 18th century, notably Romney, Lawrence, Gainsborough, and Reynolds, whose images held the utmost power in capturing female beauty, and “gave such brilliancy to English portraiture….given canvases breathing the essence of femininity” (Fowler). This exhibition was just one example of this societal obsession with the previous century at the cultural moment, gathering momentum as the century drew to a close. The interest was demonstrated most particularly in the commissions by aristocrats and the newly rich for portraits of their wives, in which evocations of eighteenth-century dress, props and poses were paramount (Maynard). The fascination with revivalist portraiture was extended to a wider readership through the pages of numerous female periodicals.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, 1775-1776, oil on canvas, 237 x 125 cm. The Huntington Library, San Marino. (Photo: The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens)

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, 1775-1776, oil on canvas, 237 x 125 cm. The Huntington Library, San Marino. (Photo: The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens)

Women’s magazines in the fin-de-siècle frequently discussed portraiture and the arts, publishing portraits of society women done by the Reynoldses and Romneys of their day—Ellis Roberts and Edward Hughes. In the very first volume of the women’s periodical Lady’s Realm, the author Mrs. F. Harcourt Williamson visits the studio of Mr. Roberts, recounting the experience in her article, aptly named “A Dream of Fair Women.” She is taken aback by the beauty of the painted women in their sumptuous garments, and her article is heavily adorned with reproductions of some of the Roberts and Hughes portraits she has admired, affording a wide audience of readers the opportunity to view paintings they would likely never experience in person.

Printed across from her descriptions of the studio is Georgina, Countess of Dudley by Edward Hughes (late 19th century). The Countess stands tall and statuesque, leaning against a flat-topped rock reminiscent of a neoclassical column. Set in a pastoral background with strong diagonal lines and painterly foliage, she wears a gathered white gown that floats down to her ankles, with satin bodice and crossed and knotted front. Her sleeves billow around her hitting just beneath her elbow, and she drapes a mantle over the rock to rest against, holding excess fabric loosely by her side. She gazes out to the periphery, hair gathered fashionably up on her head. There are obvious parallels in dress, pose, and setting to eighteenth century portraits like Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1775-1776), which would likely have been seen by Hughes and seen or read about by many readers of women’s magazines in exhibitions. Both women lean, dark sky and trees behind them, as their left hands grasp at delicate fabric folds, and white gowns pool at their feet. Their sleeves are gathered almost identically just beneath the elbow, though those on the Countess of Dudley extend out more at the shoulder—a modern intrusion into the vaguely historicized gown. But the Countess of Dudley’s crossover gown with long flowing skirt is still closer in style to a modernized version of the gown painted by Reynolds, an amalgam of fancy dress and the existing mode, than the structured and severe garments of the late nineteenth century, crafting an image of the female that is softer—more stereotypically feminine and pure—and playing on the societal interest in the previous century and its ideology. While the garments bring with them desirable characteristics of the eighteenth century, they are not pure representations of their predecessors, “as in most revivals of dress, wishful thinking often clouds the original reality, and current tastes modify those of other eras or places” (Baines). The modern inevitably creeps in, but implications are clear, and these images are imbued with hegemonic forms of feminine beauty, attaching them to aspirational women.

The revivalist aesthetic sought to depict women with greater simplicity,a kind of untroubled loveliness that seemed to prove that beauty could be perennially preserved” (Maynard); this feminine representation could be viewed largely as a conservative reaction to female advancement. And yet these were prominent society women with increased power outside of the domestic realm and in the British social sphere. They are depicted largely outside and in fancy dress, not caged within the confines of the home, and such portraits convey the social power of the hostess, displaying their wealth and material grandiosity. As subjects they are not entirely passive, conforming to the rigid confines of years past, and beauty and dress emphasize their celebrity, endowing these women with greater agency and influence rather than simply rendering them objects for male viewing pleasure. The frequent inclusion of these society portraits and their use of revivalist dress in woman’s magazines perpetuates an image of women that is in actuality full of contradiction—modern yet traditional, powerful yet sweet.

Similar competing ideologies can be seen in the photography and illustrations of female periodicals. Their images of women never adhered to one ideological camp or another, containing elements of femininity that were at times limiting, and simultaneously looked towards social advancement. Clothing was depicted as a means of this advancement rather than confinement, and yet maintained their idea of a proper feminine aesthetic. Images of late Victorian femininity were wildly unstable because the entire meaning of femininity at this cultural moment was unstable—to view them as static tropes is a great mischaracterization. These portraits and their use of dress in the context of the women’s magazine captured and crystallized this interstitial moment between letting go of a deeply separated past and forging a clear path forward—the press was merely attempting to navigate its complexities like everyone else.

Nostalgia retains a powerful presence throughout fashion and culture at large, as does the feeling that the golden age exists somewhere behind us—we make attempts to grasp at it with our sartorial reflections of decades and centuries past. But it is interesting to consider how these material reflections can never be pure. When we look towards styles of a previous decade or century, we are looking back on people who were also looking back (Cronberg). It seems we commonly think of this phenomenon in relation to the vintage aesthetic of more recent decades, but in actuality it has been occurring for centuries—perhaps a testament to some communal longing of the human spirit.





Clare Mendes, Representations of the New Woman in the 1890s Woman’s Press

Kimberly Wahl, A Domesticated Exoticism: Fashioning Gender in Nineteenth-Century British Tea Gowns

Rosalind Ballaster, Margaret Beetham, Elizabeth Frazer, and Sandra Hebron, Womens Worlds: Ideology, Femininity, and the Woman’s Magazine

Alexis Easley, Clare Gill, and Beth Rodgers, Women, Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1830s-1900s: the Victorian Period

Kathryn Ledbetter, British Victorian Women’s Periodicals: Beauty Civilization and Poetry

Frank Fowler, Portrait Painting and some Early English Painters

Margaret Maynard, A Dream of Fair Women’: Revival Dress and the Formation of Late Victorian Images of Femininity

Mrs. F. Harcourt Williamson, A Dream of Fair Women

Barbara Burman Baines, Fashion Revivals: From the Elizabethan Age to the Present Day

Fashion’s Virtual Future: Notes from London’s Digital Fashion Week

We are still in the infancy of learning how to mimic and maintain something of the in-person experience online. In the early stages of lockdown, there seemed to be something promising in the ability to access renowned museum collections online, often in minute detail and with 360-degree tours. As our worlds began to narrow to our domestic spaces, how thrilling to be able to move from the Louvre to the Prado with the switch of a tab – how unprecedented (to borrow 2020’s favorite word)! While there is certainly something to be said for increased access and the democratization of art, virtual experiences and events across the board have proven to be lacking. If you cannot move seamlessly around a sculpture allowing its narrative to unfold, or be drawn to a new piece because you caught a glimpse of it in the next room over, or share in the experience with others in the room, there is undeniably a missing human emotional element, crucial to the arts.

This must be all the more true for fashion, whose materialism is essential, and whose location on the body increases the need to take into account this very materiality. With cancellations of couture week in July, and likely carrying over to the fall, the future of fashion presentations and fashion week lies online. Clearly in this transformation much must be lost. How can movement, transparency, intricacy and emotion be captured in the virtual world? What are the implications for such a material and corporeal industry?

How can clothing make itself felt virtually?

In short—it can’t, yet.

This past weekend London served as the first of the four major fashion capitals to take a week of shows and events into the digital realm (Shanghai became the first fashion week to pivot to an entirely virtual event this past March). Though scheduled to fall during London’s menswear slot the event was technically gender-neutral, the first time in its 40-year history that men and women’s collections “showed” side by side. Hosted exclusively on the “LFW Hub”, the event featured fashion films, capsule collections, playlists, poems, panels and live performances. Few designers actually showcased new collections given the economic fallout of the current global crisis, but they were presented with the opportunity and freedom to translate their creativity into the digital sphere in different mediums and formats, resulting in myriad new ways to convey a brand’s identity and values. While the weekend was certainly full of challenges, much can be gleaned about the place of the fashion industry in the current world climate, and fashion’s potential futures.

Entering the Netflix-like homepage of the event, it was not obvious that this was a site centered around fashion. The mix of media—videos, visual art, poetry, music—read like an interactive magazine; few images even involved clothing, focusing instead on the personalities behind brands. Many household names were notably absent (Burberry, Victoria Beckham, A-Cold-Wall), choosing instead to wait and show during women’s fashion week in the fall, perhaps dulling the excitement for many but leaving space for new talent to emerge. There were certainly some standouts among the current pool of young designers, who used the opportunity to make themselves and their ideologies known.

A view of the homepage - Screenshot of
A view of the homepage of LFW (source: Screenshot of website)

A few highlights included the LVMH Prize winning Nicholas Daley and his short film The Abstract Truth, presenting a new look at his most recent fall fashion show and highlighting the music of South London jazz musicians Kwake Bass, Wu-Lu, and Rago Foot. The film was grainy, conveying a sense of nostalgia—for the Black Abstraction Movement of the 1970s, the collection’s main inspiration, and perhaps for the pre-pandemic world. It seemed almost strange to see so many bodies crowded in one space, models moving to the music and lining up not six inches apart. Martine Rose—one of the more established names of the LFW Reset—partnered with London-based retailer LN-CC to release a “Late Night—Conscious Campaign” centered around waste, crafted entirely from deadstock. Charles Jeffrey canceled a virtual dance party in favor of a “talent showcase” highlighting Black creatives and urging viewers to donate to Black Pride UK. This decision echoed the sentiments of many designers who felt odd promoting new collections in the midst of protests and pandemic, several revoking their participation altogether.

Consistent throughout was the use of fashion to advocate for larger causes, many designers focusing on sustainability—arguably the industry’s most pressing issue—but several, like Jeffrey, responding to the Black Lives Matter movement and current global protests for social justice. This ability to be reactive and sensitive to current world issues demonstrates how nimble designers were able to be outside of the traditional confines of a physical presentation where looks, makeup, music, seating are decided well in advance—a particularly positive development for fashion, so often seen as being out of touch.

MC Miss Jason and Charles Jeffrey (screenshot from article)
MC Miss Jason and Charles Jeffrey (source: screenshot from article)

Several additional positives offered promise: The definition of fashion was questioned and broadened—how can fashion be conveyed through music, in a poem, without physical clothing? Sustainability was clearly at the forefront of thought, with many designers considering new ways of working, creating, producing, traveling, shooting. The democratization of fashion was furthered—the same experience was made available to a far broader audience—consumers, buyers, tastemakers alike.

But there are still many hurdles and unknowns to figure out. It is clear that whether you’re an established fashion house or an emerging brand, it will be a challenge to get people to pay attention without rows of photographers, celebrity appearances, posts and reposts across social media—commercial viability is called into question. The digital platform lacked the same excitement, the “sense of urgency or the anticipation that grows while you are sitting and waiting for catwalk theatrics or a hot debut,” be it from the audience or watching a livestream from home. There was a tangible absence of star power without some of the industry’s largest players and brands and their tantalizing new creations.

Ultimately, it is clear that as of now, the digital equivalent was not (yet) a successful replacement for the traditional week, lacking the human aspect of the physical show. Gone was the vibration of music through the crowd, the scramble of backstage beauty, the street style shots taken as the lucky few entered venues. Were artistry and emotion adequately translated online? Not in the traditional visceral sense, hearts stopping as otherworldly designs and beautiful fabrics passed by. But this was merely an experimental step and the beginnings of a road map for a future that is undoubtedly here to stay. As designer Iris Van Herpen stated: “It will take time before you can put your own language into that new tool, but I do feel we’ll be able to transmit that emotional aspect of the garment into the virtual reality.” Time will tell—Milan and Paris are up next in July—but it is clear that those who are hesitant or slow to adapt to the new ways of being will be at a severe disadvantage.












‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and the Myth of 20s Fashion

When considering sartorially rich moments in American history, the mind easily jumps to the 1920s. There exists a glamorous image of 1920s fashion in the popular imagination that is centered around the “flapper”—one of feathers, beads, and cloche hats. Elements of this may ring true, but as amateur film and photo from the 1920s (or your grandmother’s old clothing) can attest to, much of what was actually worn in the 1920s was far more boyish and less decadent, with a sophisticated and muted color palette. The style of the 1920s has been some of the most incorrectly reproduced and imitated in film and popular culture through the contemporary moment, and the myth of 1920s fashion can largely be attributed to Hollywood, beginning in the 1950s when “Hollywood began mining the 1920s…in order to make it work, they adapted the costuming of the period to look more like what people were actually wearing in the ‘50s,” (Jeanine Basinger). The obsession and interest still seen today with the aesthetic of the 1920s appears to have begun its emergence in the 1950s, when the 1920s was already being viewed as a “theme”—for parties and costume.

Set in the roaring ‘20s and filmed in the ‘50s, the iconic movie Singin’ in the Rain is highly regarded for its glamorous and bold fashion, with detailed and elaborate technicolor garments worn by each character from the film’s leads to its hundreds of chorus dancers. The costumes are far from period-correct, but the film provides an excellent case study for the way the 1920s has been reimagined in subsequent decades, and a lens through which to examine the ways we attempt to portray (and inevitably muddy) the past. During one particularly compelling number entitled Beautiful Girl—a pastiche of Ziegfeld Follies-style tableaux vivants—we are treated to a series of vignettes of different women dressed extravagantly for particular occasions, while the male singer describes each one in poem.

Singing in the rain
Image from

There is an obvious element of satire here and throughout the entirety of the film that pokes fun at the aesthetic of the 20s, and the number is barely connected to the plot, but nevertheless functions as a testament to the significance of fashion in the film, and the impact it had on the picture of the 1920s in the 1950s imagination.

It seems only appropriate that Hollywood in the 1950s looked towards the 20s for mass appeal, given correlations in society and culture. Both decades experienced the boom of productivity and rapid economic growth of a postwar economy, a relaxation of sexual mores, and the emergence of new styles of popular music that challenged previous tastes–jazz and rock n’ roll. Perhaps these parallels provided contemporary viewers in the 1950s with something that resonated with them—distant enough to be romanticized, but similar enough to understand.

Subsequent films, including Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 rendition of The Great Gatsby, have continued to betray the 20s in their costuming, with dresses cut far too close to the body. When attempting to reproduce the past, we are never able to fully eviscerate the modern lens. Regardless, Singin’ in the Rain, with its bright color palette, rich satins and furs, and glittering sequins and fringes is a feast for the eyes.



Beyond the Buckle: Manolo Blahnik at the Wallace Collection


Blue striped wall with gold framed pictures of women and a bright pink decorated show beneath
Image C/O Maia Heegaard

The relationship between art and fashion is fraught with complexities, but the two disciplines have always drawn heavily from one another, in ways both synergistic and hostile. At the Wallace Collection’s recent exhibition An Enquiring Mind: Manolo Blahnik at the Wallace Collection, we are presented with a glistening example of the collaborative nature of art and fashion at its best—a clear representation of how art can inform the fashion design process. Juxtaposing some of the designer’s most beautiful shoe creations with prominent works of art by Boucher, Rubens, Titian, and Gainsborough, all within in the architecturally exquisite setting of Hertford House, there is an obvious decadence to the exhibit that is impossible to not enjoy on an aesthetic level.

The Wallace Collection is rich and vast on its own—difficult to digest with a single visit. Upon walking in, I was pleasantly struck by the degree to which Blahnik’s shoes blended seamlessly with the collection—nothing felt forced, out of place. It was as though the shoes were a permanent part of the collection, echoing not only the paintings on the walls, but the gilding of a cabinet, the richness of a velvet window curtain. Each room was organized thematically to display a different historical moment or story, from the dimly lit baroque, full of velvet and brocade, to “Avant-Garde Fashion.” For fans of fashion, the exhibit offers clear insight into Blahnik’s creative process—the designer credits the museum’s collection as a source of design inspiration, and from early sketches to the final product it is clear how he has brought the fantastical aspects of the art into the realm of the living.

Light pink shoes with flowers in glass case beneath blue striped wall and painting of woman in pink dress
Image C/O Olivia Smales

Nestled between the paintings and gilded clocks and vases, I found myself engaging with the shoes as art objects rather than wearable items—objects of beauty, much like the paintings on the walls. Conceptions of art versus craft are challenged, and a dialogue between the two prompts the viewer to question what makes an object “art” to begin with. What are the difference between the traditional ‘high brow’ mediums of painting and sculpture, and where does fashion fall?

Placed within delicate domed glass cases, the shoes feel all the more at home in their rich and fantastical setting, precious objects to be protected from the corruptions of the external world. Despite this layer of glass between object and viewer, the shoes imbue the space with a certain unexpected intimacy. At a time in which fashion exhibitions are often sensationalized and overcrowded, it is refreshing to be able to get close to the shoes, to examine the subtle relationships between the objects and their surroundings, the details of their meticulous design.

Beyond crafting a dialogue, the shoes and paintings bring new meanings to one another, notably a pair of infamous Manolo’s—pink shoes designed for Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette. The shoes are placed beneath Fragonard’s The Swing (1767) in which a woman kicks off a pair of candy-floss pink heels that are remarkably similar. The viewer is immediately transported to the realm of the painting, able to connect via this real world object, and simultaneously better able to understand how Blahnik may have conceptualized these shoes to begin with. The same shoes exhibited within the sterile confines of a luxury store might appear as simple objects for purchase by the privileged, drawing attention to the importance of context when it comes to all works of art (called to mind are Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, and those same boxes on a supermarket shelf…).

Mint green shoes in glass case with feathers and jewels on dark green table
Images C/O Olivia Smales

While perhaps a stereotypically feminine object, the shoes crystallized the presence of women, both within the collection and throughout history. I found myself noticing prominent female figures in the works of art around me, and considering the place of women across history, from the Marquesses who once inhabited Hertford House to the largely female crowd viewing the shoes around me.

We all share in the experience of putting on shoes. Whether or not they are as decadent as those designed by Blahnik, there is a familiarity to the object, and a desire to know who stood in these shoes before, and to be like them. The exhibition offers something to art and fashion fans alike, teaching art fans about a revolutionary designer, and bringing in a crowd who may otherwise have missed out on the Wallace collection’s treasures.




MA Documenting Fashion 2017-18 Farewell

Just like that our MA has flown by and the Documenting Fashion group of 2017-18 graduates with our Masters in the History of Art on Monday! Documenting Fashion blog co-runners Olivia and I wanted to say goodbye and thank you for following along! As we reflect on this wonderful year, we’re sharing some behind-the-scenes photos and our favorite memories. Below are some lists I’ve compiled from the group reminiscing about moments from our time in class, our trips, and of course, our best food moments.

Niall and Arielle admire Rebecca’s Kim Kardashian Selfie book

In class:

  • Viewing the Courtauld’s collection of fashion magazines such as the Gazette du Bon Ton
  •  Rebecca’s seminar on Vionnet and the big reveal of her favorite Vionnet dress
  •  Book time! – For each seminar Rebecca would collect books from her impressive collection which pertained to that weeks topic. It was endlessly exciting and I think we all have book wish-lists a mile long now
  • Dr. Adrian Garvey’s guest lecture on film and World War II
  • Our seminar on Gordon Parks
  • last but certainly not least, when we were fortunate to have been visited by our favorite dachshund, Koda
The group with Beatrice Behlen at The Museum of London
Nelleke at the Posturing exhibit

Field trips:

  • Our first visit to the Courtauld’s own prints and drawing collection
  • V&A Blythe house where we got to see some show-stoppers
  • Our multiple visits to the Museum of London – especially when we considered dress and biography
  • Visiting Autograph APB
  • The Mod New York exhibition in NYC where we collectively marveled at the beautiful exhibition design and danced to the groovy playlist
Spotted: Destinee, Olivia, Niall, and Grace on the steps of the Met in NYC – xoxo Documenting Fashion


  • Our weekly after seminar lunches in the Coutauld cafe
  • Tutorials at Federation Coffee in Brixton
  • When Evie brought us to Fish n Chips in Camberwell
  • Our lunch at by Chloe during dissertation work


For me, the best part of this year has been the friendship I’ve found in my Documenting Fashion classmates. As you can tell from our posts, we all approach dress differently but we are also extremely supportive and encouraging of each other’s thoughts and work. Our personalities meshed together so well since day one and we have had such fun together while also pushing each other to think differently, and ultimately, be better art historians. I am truly thankful to have gone through this experience with such a lovely group of people.

Thank you for reading. We are so looking forward to what the next MA Documenting Fashion group creates for you starting in September.

Abby Fogle

Dissertation Discussion: Abby


What is the working title of your dissertation?

I’m trying to come up with something more creative but right now it is: “More Than a Backdrop: Fine Art in the Fashion Magazine 1930s-1950s”

What led you to choose this subject?

Well literally all of my academic research has investigated the intersection between art and fashion in some way so continuing to look at this relationship was a given. I wrote one of my previous MA essays on the fashion magazine as a designed object so I also wanted to build on that research. I love the way image, text and layout work together in fashion magazines to construct ideas of femininity as well as national identity for readers. I found art historians who had dismissed the use of art in fashion magazines, saying fashion simply used art as a backdrop to sell clothing. So, I wanted to assert that actually art and fashion work together to create significant aesthetics and messages.

I had always planned to write about classicism and couture in the 1930s because I have a low-key obsession with all things Greco-Roman and I’m fascinated by modern classicism. But about a month before we had to choose our topics I kept thinking about photographs by Cecil Beaton of models in eveningwear in front of Jackson Pollock paintings, and earlier this year I also came across photographs by Genevieve Naylor of models in Alexander Calder’s studio and then I was interested in modern art and fashion. I thought I had to choose between classicism or modern art but Rebecca (shout-out to Rebecca Arnold!!) helped me realize I was essentially looking at the same thing: art and fashion in magazine editorials. So, I didn’t have to choose and I really think it is the perfect topic for me.


Favorite book/article you’ve read for your dissertation so far and why?

In my quest to tie together art, fashion, and mid-century American politics I found a fantastic article by Alex Taylor about how Calder’s sculptures were used for both U.S. cultural propaganda and Latin American dissent during the Cold War.

Also, I got to re-visit the catalog from my favorite Met Costume Institute exhibition, 2003’s Goddess: The Classical Mode which spotlighted fashion designer’s affinity for the classical.


Favorite image/object in your dissertation and why?

A Vogue 1931 editorial “Bas Relief” featuring George Hoyningen-Huene’s photographs of Madeleine Vionnet evening pyjamas where the model is actually lying down against a dark background but it looks like she floats while her dress swirls around her. The meeting of timeless classical imagery and modern photography is breathtaking and Hoyningen-Huene is my favorite photographer AND Vionnet is the best – it just doesn’t get any better.


Favorite place to work?

I can only focus in my room or in the Courtauld library


Are You Educated in Art?: Vogue and Taste

The other night my dissertation research had me searching through Vogue’s 1944 issues and while I didn’t find what I was looking for, I did come across an article that stopped me in my tracks. As an (aspiring?) art historian, the editorial titled “Are You Educated in Art?” in the January 1, 1944 edition of Vogue caught my attention. In this two-page spread art critic Frank Crowninshield instructs the reader about Western art history in the form of fourteen questions. Crowninshield provides answers to various questions ranging from the use of archaic Greek statuary to the influence of Picasso.

Although this questionnaire comes across as an art history pop-quiz, the text insists that it “has little more to do with your discernment and taste than with your study-book knowledge; for, in the appreciation of art, one may know all the facts and still be a Philistine.” The use of the word “taste” here is integral to the reader’s reception of this article. IAntje Krause-Wahl describes that in this period, “Vogue increasingly saw it as its responsibility to guide their readers in the principles of good taste. Jessica Daves, who in 1952 followed Edna Woolman Chase as editor-in-chief, explicitly formulated this when she described the magazine as a ‘vehicle to educate the public taste.’”

The use of art and the acquisition of art historical discernment played an integral role in Vogue’s discourse on how to obtain taste. Later, in July 1945 Vogue even devoted an entire issue to the Museum of Modern Art which featured Marcel Duchamp’s “The Large Glass” on the cover. Thus, the 1940s Vogue reader not only knows the latest fashions but she also acquires other skills crucial to being an ideal society lady such as knowledge of art history and an interest in modern art. Indeed, women’s magazines such as Vogue act as “instruction manuals” of femininity. This direct appeal to its reader to cultivate their taste and learn how to properly appreciate art, provides an excellent example of the way in which fashion magazines work to construct femininity and teach artistic literacy.

By Abby Fogle


Craik, Jennifer. The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion. London: Routledge (1994), 47.

Crowninshield, Frank. “Features/Articles/People: Are You Educated in Art?” Vogue 103, no. 1 (1944): 48-49,

Krause-Wahl, Antje. “American Fashion and European Art—Alexander Liberman and the Politics of Taste in Vogue of the 1950s” in the Journal of Design History Vol. 28, No. 1. (2015).  doi:10.1093/jdh/epu041.

Quicksilver Brilliance: Adolph De Meyer Photographs at the Met

In our next installment of the MA Documenting Fashion NYC trip recap we take on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, specifically a small gallery tucked away by the nineteenth-century sculpture featuring the photographs of Baron Adolph de Meyer in Quicksilver Brilliance, a solo exhibition of his work. The exhibition utilizes the Met’s own holdings of de Meyer’s photographs to create an overview of de Meyer’s career.

As a pioneer of fashion photography, de Meyer’s distinctive Pictorialist approach helped define the genre during the interwar period at leading fashion magazines. Thus, the inclusion of one of de Meyer’s tuxedos is an appropriate addition to the exhibition. The presentation of a pristine 1930s black wool tuxedo which likely comes from Wolf Kahan, a tailor who catered to the artists of Vienna, sets a tone of elegance for the exhibition. De Meyer, a member of the “international set” that defined high society in fin-de-siècle Europe, was considered a beacon of style, writing columns for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue instructing American women on the latest European fashions.

Adolph de Meyer, “The Silver Cap,” 1909. Gelatin silver print, 1912.

The first photograph in the exhibition that caught my attention was The Silver Cap which as its title suggests, highlights the headwear of de Meyer’s model. The 1909 photograph seems to glitter on its own like an early twentieth-century version of the Kira-Kira app. Indeed, de Meyer was a master of manipulating light, combining a soft focus and a dramatic use of electric light to create a “quicksilver brilliance.” Here, de Meyer’s manipulated lighting captures the texture and luminosity of the fabric to illustrate in the photograph the quality of the textile as if it were in motion.

Adolph de Meyer, “Rita de Acosta Lydig,” 1917. Platinum print.

My other favorite photograph in Quicksilver Brilliance is a 1917 portrait of Rita de Acosta Lydig where de Meyer captures the socialite and suffragette in striking simplicity. I adore the way in which de Meyer renders the subtle contours of his subject’s body and illuminates the confident character of Rita without showing much of her face. To me, the image, which appeared in Vogue, relates the sensual beauty of the female subject and represents a style of photography and posing that dominates fashion photography to this day.

Quicksilver Brilliance presents a charming selection of prints which epitomize de Meyer’s career and highlight the elegant origins of fashion photography. The exhibition is on at the Met until April 8th. 

By Abby Fogle

Royal Women at Fashion Museum Bath


After our last essays were due, Destinee and I embarked on a lovely day trip to Bath, where we wandered among the limestone Georgian facades and marveled at the ancient Roman baths. But first, we took our pilgrimage to the Fashion Museum to see their new Royal Women exhibition.

The exhibition, which spans four generations of Britain’s royal women, begins with a large family tree introducing the women along with their royal, familial connection, setting the stage for the exhibition’s biographical and monarchial narrative.  Although none of the women featured in the exhibition was monarch, each woman played a key role in the British monarchy. Royal Women explores how their royal roles influenced their choice in dress.

Starting with Alexandra, Princess of Wales, the exhibition placed the women’s biographies side by side with their ensembles, emphasizing the strong correlation between biography and dress. Alexandra’s 1863 wedding dress, on loan from the Royal Collection, lent by Her Majesty The Queen, is an excellent example of a ceremonial object which marks a key moment in both the life of Alexandra and Great Britain.

Queen Mary’s gowns

Also on display is an ensemble of gold and pale green velvet, worn by Queen Mary wore to the wedding of her granddaughter, Princess Elizabeth as well as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s grey silk satin ball gown from 1954. Both dresses embody shifting roles for these royal women. No longer Queen consort, but mother and grandmother to the new monarch, these two formal ensembles are both elegant and subdued, reflecting the mature and regal image Queen Mary and the Queen Mother needed to maintain.

Two 1950s Norman Hartnell evening gowns worn by Princess Margaret

It could be because of my recent binge-watch of Netflix’s The Crown, but my favorite part of the Royal Women exhibition was the selection of dresses worn by the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret. Pieces such as two 1950s Norman Hartnell evening dresses show the glamorous side of 20th century royalty and highlight and Margaret’s patronage of prominent London and Parisian couturiers. The sensuous display of skin and nipped-waists of these two dresses point to the sophisticated and alluring attitude Margaret was able to carve out for herself.

Initially, I was bothered by the small number of items in the exhibition and how the dresses shown were mostly formal or evening wear, when I was hoping to see a much more personal side of these royal women. But, upon reflection, I realized that the exhibition appropriately presents the calculated narrative of Britain’s royal women. The exhibition, much like the monarchy itself, only displays a limited view of the lives of the royals and in Royal Women, much like in real life, the public only sees the glitz and glamour, the ceremonial, and the put-together looks of the monarchy. Thus, the dresses in Royal Women tell us much about Alexandra, Mary, Elizabeth, and Margaret, and how they chose to present themselves as royal women.

By Abby Fogle

Royal Women is on at the Fashion Museum in Bath until 28 April 2019.

All photos author’s own