As it nears the end of term, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Violet discusses James Barnor, the Swinging Sixties, and photography as a means of resistance.
What is your dissertation about?
I wrote my dissertation on British-Ghanaian photographer James Barnor and his capturing of Black Britain in the 1960s. I first came across his work in February when I saw his image Wedding Guests (below) on Pinterest. I was struck by the innate poise of the two female subjects, who in their meticulous attire and polished appearance, are the epitome of 1960s cosmopolitan glamour. I love the quietly revolutionary quality of his images. Whilst they are not politically or racially charged on the surface, in their depiction of everyday people, posing amongst the streets of London, they would have proved extremely powerful in both contemporary and post-colonial contexts. There is a retrospective of his work on at the Serpentine Gallery at the moment. Very fortuitously, it opened two weeks before my dissertation was due. It was incredibly exciting to see his images in the flesh. The show has been really beautifully curated, illuminating the multi-dimensionality of Barnor’s work through a diverse range of images from his six-decade career.
Who is your favourite designer?
Ossie Clark. I love the elegant cut, drape and flow of his pieces. Born in Liverpool in 1942, Clark quickly became known as a pioneer of London’s Swinging Sixties cultural revolution. His designs offered a more romantic alternative to Mary Quant’s short hemlines, block colours and geometric prints. I came across a silk co-ord designed by him in a vintage boutique on the Portobello Road a couple of weeks ago. Consisting of a pair of billowing high-waisted trousers and a short-sleeved Peter Pan collar top, cinched in by a silk sash at the waist, it is my dream ensemble. The cut and fit are far superior to any item of clothing that I have ever worn. Perfectly proportioned and meticulously tailored around the waist and shoulders, I feel as if it was made for me. Clark really understood the female form. My dream is to become a collector of his pieces.
Favourite dress history photograph?
This is a tough question as I have so many. But with regard to dress, the image which I find myself coming back to is the photograph Neil Kenlock took of Olive Morris in 1973. Morris was a political activist and community leader, known for the part she played in the Squatters Movement and her founding of the Brixton Black Women’s Group in 1973. Very sadly, she died aged 27, but in her short life, she achieved an incredible amount. In this image, there is a real sense of her presence as an individual. In faux jacket, worn jeans and assortment of bangles, she appears confident and at ease. It possesses a snapshot quality with the viewer a voyeur looking in at an intimate moment in this remarkable woman’s life. She smokes a cigarette as she huddles by the electric radiator to keep warm. It seems like there is an interaction between her and Kenlock as she beams leaning slightly towards the camera. I love the idea of photography being a collaborative venture between the subject and photographer, with the viewer is privy to the intimacy of their relationship.
What is your favourite thing that you’ve written/worked on/researched this year?
In the first semester, I was introduced to the concept of photography as a means of resistance, and within this, the role clothing has played as a means to self-fashioning identities for oppressed groups within society. This fuelled an interest in Stuart Hall’s ‘politics of representation’ which I have applied to different periods and in varying contexts throughout the year. My first essay was on Harlem Renaissance portraiture and how the representational power of the genre was harnessed by various artists of the period to illuminate the complexity and multi-dimensionality of being African American at this time. I was particularly drawn to James VanDerZee’s studio portraits of glamorous young Harmelites. Posing in elegant 1920s clothing against elaborate backdrops, they drew together the different fragments of their diasporic identity in one visual narrative. I’m fascinated by the concept of the tiniest sartorial details having the most significant meaning to the individual and how this can translate to the outside eye.
Carol Tulloch, The Birth of Cool (London: Bloomsbury) 2016
In 1914, American Vogue took note of a little shop on Bond Street in London that produced exquisite pieces unparalleled in their ‘beauty and delicacy of workmanship’ as well as their ‘bold presentment of form and color.’ The London shop was one branch of the famed Russian jewellery house, Fabergé.
Founded in 1842 by Gustav Fabergé, the St. Petersburg jewellery firm gained worldwide recognition for the intricate detail of its pieces, as well as its comprehensive knowledge of enamelwork. When Gustav’s son, Peter Carl Fabergé, took over the company in 1882, he developed a close working relationship with the last two Tsars of Russia, Alexander III and Nicholas II. Until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, both Alexander the III and Nicholas II ordered numerous custom Fabergé eggs annually as presents for family members. Each egg usually contained a surprise, from family portraits to miniature coaches, to mechanical songbirds. Many were comprised of enamel, while others were made of rock crystal, gold, or other sumptuous materials. The first egg, known as the HenEgg or Jewelled Hen Egg, was given by Alexander III to his wife, Maria Feodorovna, as an Easter gift in 1885. The family developed a fondness for the elaborate, inventive eggs and would order fifty-three more before the Revolution.
Some of the most awe-inspiring eggs include the Lilies of the Valley Easter Egg from 1898, the Bay Tree Egg from 1911, the Renaissance Egg from 1894, and the Winter Egg from 1913.
The Imperial Egg shape has been reimagined in pieces including pendants, bracelets, and earrings from the company’s Heritage collection. Additionally, the essences of specific eggs have been infused into subsequent collections. For example, the house produced a collection of fine jewellery with Rococo influences, stemming from the 18th century Rocaille Egg. Another collection comprised designs reminiscent of the jewellery Fabergé first released upon its founding in 1842.
Two extraordinary pieces worn by Kristin Davis at the Oliver Awards in London in 2014 highlight the house’s artistic flexibility. The Cascade de Fleurs Earrings nod to Art Nouveau and the Belle Époque, while the Mazurka Bangle mirrors the Rococo line.
I have always admired the house of Fabergé’s ability to seamlessly knit gemstones together in a delicate manner that highlights the beauty of each stone. The below Fabergé ring was given by my father to my mother when they found out they were expecting me, and she passed it on to me on my twenty-first birthday. I rarely take it off! In addition to its sentimental importance to me, I am also awed by the artistry and grace of its design. The woven bands of metal holding each stone flow like liquid, forming a delicate web of gold.
Overall, the jewels of Fabergé endure in popularity nearly three hundred years after the house’s founding due to its ability to steadfastly honour its history while consistently inventing new styles of jewellery. Though the eggs remain the house’s more recognizable signature, every piece possesses its own elegant flair and demonstrated expertise.
By Genevieve Davis
“Features: A Craftsman to the Czar.” Vogue 43, no. 2 (Jan 15, 1914): 40. https://www.proquest.com/magazines/features-craftsman-czar/docview/911849950/se-2?accountid=10277.
On Wednesday, we went on our long-anticipated Documenting Fashion excursion to Guildhall Art Gallery’s new exhibition, Noël Coward: Art & Style. The exhibition, that opened on June 14 and will run until late December, offers a behind-the-curtain view into the glamorous world of prolific British playwright and ‘Renaissance man’ Noël Coward.
As a gay man from a working-class background, he was an outsider to his environment in many ways, and as a result constructed his image meticulously. In both his personal life and on stage, he strove for a luxurious kind of ‘playful glamour’ and Guildhall Art Gallery thus curates a striking display of Coward’s rich visual realm.
Structured loosely chronologically, we are taken on an intimate journey through Noël Coward’s life. The exhibition greets us with the playwright’s famous fashion trademark: the silk dressing gown. Tied unusually – as he always did – to the side, the mannequin poses nonchalantly with hand-in-pocket. The other respectably gloved hand holds a long cigarette holder. This exhibit presents such an evocative quality of Coward: the man who was ‘determined to travel through life first class’.
We are invited to examine an array of Coward’s pristinely preserved makeup tools and behind-the-scenes sketches of the costume design for iconic stage songs such as ‘Dance Little Lady’ from This Year of Grace (1928). Another section of the exhibition showcases black and white photographs of Coward with stars like Marlene Dietrich and Lauren Bacall, emblems of Hollywood glamour during his time in America.
A particularly striking element of the exhibition was the exhibition’s evocative display of clothing. On a raised semi-circular platform a white satin bias-cut evening dress with a white silk belt is displayed, that drapes gracefully to the floor. The neckline is decorated with a delicate artificial gardenia. This is a modern reconstruction of the dress that Gertrude Lawrence wore in Act I of Private Lives (1930) originally designed by British couturier Edward Henry Molyneux. The backdrop is a deep, midnight blue backlit art deco-style panel; the colour and lighting seems to accentuate the cool, bewitching, and glamorous aura of the dress. With the mannequin being physically raised on the platform, it evokes a sense of grandeur and celebrity.
Another experimental display of dress is a dark red chiffon dress with taffeta ruffles designed by Sir Norman Bishop Hartnell, a designer who worked often for Noël Coward. On a seventeenth-century Queen Anne chaise longue in a dusky pink velvet, the dress is draped, as if it still holds the memory of being worn on a reclining, celebrity body.
His luxury image translated into all aspects of his life, and Art & Style shows a section of the ostentatious antique furniture that adorned his homes. In his later life he moved to Jamaica, a country he felt great love towards, and began to paint landscapes of the country – a hobby into which the exhibition provides a personal peek.
A final section of the exhibition displays contemporary dress designs inspired by Coward and his world, by American designer Anna Sui. It bids us farewell with a final room that play videos of his performances, and even personal home videos of him and his friends.
Noël Coward: Art & Style presents us with the opulent chicness of the inter-war years of celebrity glamour, as well as a never-seen-before glimpse into the visual artefacts of his personal life.
Entry to the exhibition is free.
By Kathryn Reed
Noel Coward, Another Magazine, https://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/2203/noel-coward
During the wintery months of 1969, something unusual happened in the Cornish seaside village of St. Agnes. That is, a group of eccentric, unemployed, and, crucially, strangely dressed ‘beatniks’ arrived and began living in the off-season holiday cottages. This occurrence was notable enough to warrant coverage by local television station Westward Television. In this twelve-minute piece of black and white archival footage, Del Cooper interviews both the ‘suspicious’ local residents and the ‘unconventional’ beatniks, capturing a unique moment of fashion microhistory.
Before delving into analysis, it is important to first set this film in a temporal and geographic context. Alternative style was not necessarily new: indeed, by 1969, a variety of subcultural styles and countercultural thought existed in the UK. Since the mid-1950s, Jazz Fiends, Beatniks and West End Boys, stylistically spearheaded by West Indian immigrants, challenged the constrictive post-war aesthetic of adulthood. In the 1960s, Mods and Skinheads similarly used their dress to be socially disruptive. And while Beatniks are not as readily associated with 1960s subculture as Mods, in June 1965, beat poet Allen Ginsberg nevertheless drew a crowd of 7,000 to his four-hour-long poetry reading.Yet, while counterculture and alternative style was a real possibility in this era, visible street style was often limited to London and other cultural hubs. So, when a group of fashionably long-haired Beatniks arrived in a village at the extremity of southwestern England, they signified something new, and disrupted the social ‘norm’.
Analysing this film through the lens of dress and fashion, therefore, is extremely valuable. It is the Beatniks’ dress that is the main disturbance to St. Agnes. Their unusual and sometimes flamboyant style is a stark juxtaposition against the conservative villagers and the local television reporter. This non-fiction film is illustrative of an important representation of fashion on a micro-level, separate to the world of high fashion and London.
If, as fashion scholar Carlo Marco Belfanti argues, fashion is defined by ‘an increasing passion for change and an insatiable search for novelty’, there is nothing more novel than the juxtaposition of a trendy subcultural dress with an underpopulated tourist destination in winter. Accordingly, the film opens with a static shot of Del Cooper standing against a backdrop of usual activity in St. Agnes. He seems to embody the orthodox, respectable and masculine. His grey hair is cut short and only slightly windswept, and he is dressed conservatively in a monochrome polo-neck jumper and clean-cut wool jacket. Behind him, a woman in a headscarf exits Webb’s Store, and a Jacob’s van pulls up across the road to unload a delivery of cream crackers. This scene of total normalcy, however, is soon unsettled by subversive dress. As the camera pans right, the viewer’s eye is drawn to a group of women and men making their way through the village. They are wearing loose-fitting, layered garments, accessorised with patterned scarves and a random assortment of hats; all of them with genderbending long hair. At this moment, Cooper, addressing the camera, answers the unspoken question: ‘Well, of course, it all depends on what you mean by Beatniks. If you mean young people with long hair and rather unconventional clothes, then the Beatniks are here, in St. Agnes, right now.’ A group who have fashioned themselves so conspicuously, their desire for novelty and change is palpable.
It is important to note Del Cooper’s definition of ‘Beatnik’. There are only two elements of this definition: their novel clothing and their long hair. While their actual behaviour is mentioned in the film – sharing money and belongings, strict vegetarianism, and inclination to burn joss-sticks in the local pubs – it is their dress that makes them Beatniks, including their decision to grow their hair long, a body modification that clearly communicates to other human beings that they are unconventional.
As the camera follows the Beatniks through the village, a man and a woman lead the group, five or six paces ahead. The man wears dark, flared jeans, pointed heeled boots, and a sparsely buttoned-up patterned shirt over a ruffled scarf. A cropped fur coat shrouds this outfit, that he wears undone with his hands resting casually in the pockets. His hair is slightly longer than shoulder length, accessorised by an askew cowboy-style hat. The woman is casually dressed in all black: a loose-fitting dress that reaches her ankles and leather boots. Over this, she wears an oversized, lightweight jacket and a carelessly knotted scarf around her neck. Her long hair flows behind her as she walks.
Following behind them are six more long-haired members of the group. Another woman in all black pushes a pram while four men walk alongside her, all in flared trousers and casual shoes. Their winter coats are a trench coat with the belt hanging loose at the back, a hooded duffle, and two double-breasted peacoats, respectively. One man wears a beret, while another wears a Russian Cossack-style fur hat, and they have on a hodgepodge of scarves. Another woman brings up the rear, dressed in a more masculine style, with loose-fitting trousers, a shirt, and a chunky waistcoat. She does not wear her coat but drags it along in her left hand, with a lit cigarette in her right.
What about these people’s dress draws them together? They are undoubtedly a collective, with loose and layered flares, long hair, and patterned scarves. Crucially, these clothes must be thrown on their bodies carelessly, unbuttoned, with pockets to rest the hands. Casualness defines this style tribe. Yet their clothes incorporate a range of cuts, styles, and materials, from paisley cotton scarves to striped woollen scarves, from fur coats to duffel coats – a nod to the growing interest in second-hand clothing in the late 1960s. This exemplifies the paradox at the heart of fashion. As Sheila Cliffe has put it, ‘humans have a need to be both a member of a group, which provides security and also distinguish themselves from the group and assert their individuality’. This is highlighted through the community’s differences in dress and fashioning themselves – they accessorise with individual styles of hat, scarf, and sometimes coat.
This casual, loose, and layered style would not be nearly as striking if it were not juxtaposed with the relatively plain and certainly traditional style exhibited by the long-term residents of St. Agnes. Yet, as the film begins to interview the locals, it is clear that the exhibition of dress is of far less importance to the filmmaker. While the camera angles ensured to include plenty of full-body shots of the unusual Beatnik outfits, the shots of the interviewees are only static close-ups. And to a degree, this is understandable: if fashion is novel, in constant change, and both individual and group-based, the St. Agnes citizens are not particularly fashionable.
Six different locals are interviewed, and either express distaste or indifference to the unorthodox new arrivals. In a few minutes, viewers meet a range of characters: a woman, without make-up, her white hair tucked into a dark fur pillbox hat, and a paisley scarf knotted around her neck; a middle-aged man in a wool coat and trilby hat; a young woman, bare-faced with a messy bob haircut; a woman with dark hair tied up in a loose bun, both make-up and accessory free; an old lady in a fur bonnet; a local councillor with neat curls and cats-eye spectacles; and a man in a stiff-collared coat, white shirt and tie. Dress, at its most fundamental, can signify ambivalences inherent in humans. Here, the functional and stylish – but not particularly trendy – fur hats help to signify a woman’s age. Likewise, the local councillor’s well-ordered spectacles and hair signify her – relatively – public-facing occupation. The man in a coat, shirt and tie suggests professionality. Most fundamentally, the men have short hair while the women have long. Therefore, while not everyone self-fashions to be novel, trendy, or individual, the interviews with the Cornish people signify that on some level, everyone self-fashions to reveal a subconscious element of themselves.
As the film moves to interview the Beatniks, however, deeper elements of the inner self are visually expressed. As Daniel Miller argues, dress can often be used ‘as an appropriate exploration of who one really is’. The television reporter, Cooper, seems quite aware of this innate connection. While interviewing Toni, a single mother who wears a string of sparse beads wrapped around her neck twice, reminiscent of hippie love-beads, and a black button-down blouse with delicate embroidery and slightly puffed sleeves, he asks, ‘The people of St. Agnes are very suspicious of you because you’re very unconventional in your dress. Are you also unconventional in your morals?’.
Additionally, the non-fiction news segment shows snippets of the travelling artists undertaking their crafts and passions. We see people engraving slates, painting, forging jewellery, and playing music. And, in line with Miller’s theory, each person’s dress seems to reflect their own inner talent. The jewellery makers wear thick metal rings on nearly every finger, and the performer dresses the most flamboyantly, in a beret, with long hair and white-rimmed sunglasses – impractically worn indoors. Not only do these accessories help these artists with their self-expression, but they also embody a further definition of fashion. That is, prioritising form over function. It is certainly not practical to wear so many rings, nor are sunglasses fulfilling a practical function when worn indoors. These Beatniks are using dress and accessories purely to portray themselves how they desire.
And as the short film comes to a close, an atmospheric shot pans out of shabbily, artistically dressed Beatniks, listening to a poem being read aloud against the crashing waves of Cornwall. Miller’s concluding argument seems apt: a study of clothing should evoke feelings, both tactile and emotional. Perhaps, then, in the bitter winter air, their layered outfits, hats and scarves are keeping them warm in the wintery air. Or perhaps a breeze blows right through the loose-fitting dresses. Perhaps their chunky, hand-knitted woollen jumpers are itchy. Perhaps they enjoy feeling the sea breeze in their long hair.
The film ends, panning in on the waves after Del Cooper makes his closing statement:
What bothers the 4,000 odd residents of this charming, attractive and rather conventional seaside village is that the community with unconventional clothes and rather unorthodox ways will, as they put it, give the village a bad name and drive away the holiday visitors. They want them to go. But whether you call them free-thinking artists, Beatniks, or the vanguard of a new movement to make England great again, they’re here to stay. And St. Agnes will never ever be quite the same again.
Here, the importance of fashion and dress is notable: this strangely dressed yet fashionable community has altered the microhistory of St. Agnes.
By Kathryn Reed
A Beatnik Community in St Agnes. Presented by Del Cooper. BFI (South West Film & Television Archive), 1969. https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-a-beatnik-community-in-st-agnes-1969-online
Arnold, Rebecca, Fashion: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2009)
Belfanti, Carlo Marco, ‘Was Fashion a European Invention?’ in Journal of Global History 3 (2008)
Cliffe, Sheila, ‘Think Fashion or Tradition?’, The Social Life of Kimono: Japanese Fashion Past and Present. (London, 2018)
Davis, Fred, Fashion, Culture and Identity (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995)
Donnelly, Mark, ‘Wholly Communion: Truths, Histories, and the Albert Hall Poetry Reading’, Journal of Cinema and Media 52 1 (2011), pp. 128-140
Eicher, Joanne B., and Roach-Higgins, Mary Ellen, ‘Definition and Classification of Dress,’ in Ruth Barnes and Joanne B. Eicher, Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning in Cultural Contexts (Oxford, 1993)
Miller, Daniel, ‘Why Clothing Is Not Superficial,’ in Stuff (Cambridge: Polity, 2010)
Tulloch, Carol, ‘Rebel Without a Pause: Black Street Style & Black Designers’ in Juliet Ash and Elizabeth Wilson (eds.) Chic Thrills: A Fashion Reader (Berkeley, 1993)
Welters, Linda, ‘The Beat Generation Subcultural Style’, in Linda Welters and Patricia A. Cunningham (eds.) Twentieth Century American Fashion (London, 2005)
As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Ruby discusses tartan, Elsa Schiaparelli’s Lobster Dress and 1930s personal style.
What is your dissertation about?
My dissertation is about how the concept of personal style developed in 1930s America. The decade was a spectacular time for American womenswear, as the fashion industry developed rapidly and many (but certainly not all) women began to enjoy much more freedom of dress. I’ve found some great books about personal style from the period, all by women writers, and I’m studying those in tandem with wardrobes and looks from exceptionally stylish and highly visible American women like Mae West, Wallis Simpson, and Barbara Hutton.
What is your favourite thing that you’ve written/worked on/researched this year?
I had a great time working on my Virtual Exhibition, which was a show about the use of tartan in Scottish fashion design. I love Scottish design, and I had been wanting to do something to pay homage to that love for a long time. Also, I’m quite a visual person, so I really enjoyed being able to draw maps of my galleries and select paint colours and all that – admittedly, I got a bit carried away and even made designs for what my display mannequins would look like. They are tartan, of course.
What is something you’ve read this year that you would recommend to anyone?
Anne Hollander’s Seeing Through Clothes has become a bible to me. I now recommend it to anyone who is even remotely interested in dress history! Hollander’s chapter on fabric has fundamentally changed and deepened my relationship with clothing. I also have to echo everyone else and say Daniel Miller’s Stuff. It’s no surprise that all of us in Documenting Fashion are drawn to it. It’s such a well-researched study of why clothing is inherently important to humanity – something which I think we all already believed innately, but it’s comforting to see it supported by someone else’s research.
Has learning about dress history had any effect on your personal style?
Oh my, yes. I already joke that I treat my closet as if I’m building the world’s smallest fashion museum, and now that’s intensified tenfold. I fall in love with every single garment we look at, and I’m never content to just say ‘Oh, that looks great on her’ – I always want one for myself. My eBay searches are a bit out of control these days.
Favourite dress history image?
I could never pick just one! Lately, however, I can’t seem to stop thinking about Gordon Parks’ 1956 editorial photo ‘Evening Wraps at Dawn’. It’s such a textured, tactile image. You can almost feel the nighttime fog beginning to clear and smell the wet pavement and car grease that surround this couple. I love the contrast of her glamorous evening look with the gritty early morning light, and I love that she clearly hasn’t been a well-behaved woman in the 1950s sense – she’s been out on the town with a gentleman until dawn! Also, as a New Yorker, I love that I can gauge almost exactly where Parks would have shot this image. It’s amazing how little the city has changed.
What are you wearing today?
I’m wearing a vintage set from the seventies; it’s a pair of wide-leg pants and a ruffled top in red, yellow, and green Madras plaid. I’m not wearing shoes right now, but when I go outside I’ll probably wear a pair of purple fur and red velvet Prada sandals with big gold buckles. I love them, but they’re highly impractical. There are only a few weeks of the year that it’s the right temperature to wear them, so I have to squeeze in as many outfits with them as I can before it gets too warm!
Where do you get your clothes from?
I’m a big vintage collector, and most of my wardrobe is vintage from eBay, Etsy, and lots of wonderful vintage shops that I’ve hunted down across the years. I supplement that with some secondhand designer pieces from Vestiaire Collective and The RealReal – I try to buy almost everything vintage or secondhand. I also love to support local designers in New York and London, the two places where I split my time right now!
Which outfit from dress history do you wish you could wear?
My answer to this will change every single day, if not every hour of the day, but right now I’d have to say Elsa Schiaparelli’s Lobster Dress that she made in collaboration with Salvador Dalí. I mean, can you imagine anything better for summer?!
How would you describe your style?
Usually I say Victorian-meets-1960s in a candy store colour palette. Recently, as I get deeper into dissertation research, there have been a lot more thirties references mixed in with that too – I think at this point it’s really just a little bit of everything from every era. I’m a magpie.
Do you have an early fashion memory to share?
My earliest memory is actually a fashion memory! I remember my parents taking me aside to tell me that I was going to have a little sister when I was just a toddler, and I wasn’t really paying attention because I was fixated on pulling out a bright blue turtleneck from my wardrobe. I guess I’ve always been a bit too obsessed with clothing.
On 17 May, galleries reopened in the UK. I took the opportunity to visit From Here to Eternity: Sunil Gupta. A Retrospective at The Photographers’ Gallery for the exhibition’s limited reopening from 17 May – 31 May. A retrospective illumination of UK-based photographer Sunil Gupta’s (b. 1953, New Delhi, India) body of work so far, from 1976 to the present day, the showcase focusses on themes of race, identity, transition and family. Telling the story of what it is to be a gay Indian man, Gupta’s work is both personal and political, ordinary and melodramatic, and, crucially, challenges Eurocentric visualisations of bodies and desire.
I was particularly struck by the way that pose and self-styling affect the atmosphere of the photographs. In an interview in 2019, Gupta said, ‘[in] India … one of the major stumbling blocks to stepping into [a gay] identity was not having a place. Every time I met somebody the primary question was “Do you have place?”’. This notion was especially prevalent in three of Gupta’s photographic series on display at the Photographer’s Gallery: Towards an Indian Gay Image (1983), Exiles (1986-1987) and Mr Malhotra’s Party (2006-ongoing). The lack of place emphasises the importance of self-fashioning and the subjects’ poses and styling highlight senses of both displacement and belonging.
In 1983, Gupta created a black and white series, Towards an Indian Gay Image, that photographed Indian men who identified as gay. They agreed to be photographed but wanted to remain anonymous, which resulted in subjects posing with their back to the camera without their heads in the shot. Gupta explains:
It was the first time I had returned to India as an adult and I found gay men living in plain sight but completely hidden from mainstream society. The last thing they wanted me to do was to make photographs of them and publish them somewhere. It created a big dilemma for me as I was still in college and hoping to document social justice using photo-journalism and my subjects were invisible.
In these photographs, Gupta highlights the vulnerability of the gay community in India and the obstacles that arise from the desire to be recognised but the need to be hidden. He encourages us to consider how someone may dress and pose when they want to be both seen and unseen.
This duality is continued in colour in the later series Exiles (1986-1987), where Gupta returned again to Delhi to illuminate the lives of gay men in India before the decriminalisation of homosexuality. In 2020, Gupta told The Face, ‘I became aware through art school that this whole thing called art history is our context and my story is not in it.’ Exiles begins to tell this story, where clothing and pose are crucial in expressing Gupta’s subjects’ identity.
For a much later series, Mr Malhotra’s Party (2006-ongoing), Gupta photographs queer-identifying people in India, but this time they are keener to identify themselves. They pose confidently and look straight into the camera. The way they dress, too, is bold, cool, and assertive.
Across these images, a transition is clear: from invisibility to visibility. By putting physical photographs next to each other in time, the exhibition emphasised the role of self-styling and posing in displaying identities, and in telling crucial stories that are at once personal and political. Through these photographs, Sunil Gupta created visibility for those who were hidden and began to answer the question: ‘what does it mean to be an Indian queer man?’ As the photographer himself has said, ‘It’s our everyday stories that are important.’
By Kathryn Reed
Artist’s own website, <https://www.sunilgupta.net/> [Accessed 19 May 2021]
From Here to Eternity – an original film with photographer Sunil Gupta, dir. Louise Stevens, 2020, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-N2AtpQEtzs> [Accessed 19 May 2021]
The Photographer’s Gallery exhibition press release, ‘From Here to Eternity: Sunil Gupta A Retrospective, 9 Oct 2020 – 24 January 2021’, (4 August, 2020) <https://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibition/here-eternity-sunil-gupta-retrospective> [Accessed 19 May 2021]
Cochrane, Laura. ‘Sunil Gupta: photographing India’s queer scene over 50 years’, The Face (8 October 2020) <https://theface.com/culture/sunil-gupta-art-the-photographers-gallery-from-here-to-eternity-exhibition> [Accessed 19 May 2021]
Dunster, Flora. ‘Do You Have Place? A Conversation with Sunil Gupta’, Imagining Queer Europe Then and Now 35 No. 1 (20 January 2021)
DreckMag, ‘Interview with Sunil Gupta’, DreckMag (1 January 2017), <https://dreck-mag.com/2017/01/01/sunil-gupta/> [Accessed 19 May 2021]
As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Lucy, the co-editor of this blog, discusses Tamara de Lempicka, lidos and self-styling via eBay.
What is your dissertationabout?
I’m writing my dissertation on the artist Tamara de Lempicka, looking at her life as a process of self-fashioning. She’s most famous for the portraits (and self-portraits) she painted while living in Paris in the 1920s and 30s, but lots of people were/are aware of her because of her persona and her distinctive look. The details of her life are sketchy in lots of places – some biographers believe that she lied about her age right up until her death in 1980 – and she seems to have actively cultivated this image of herself as a kind of glamourous, film star-esque aristocrat. She would commission photographers to capture her in designer clothes, always with painted red lips and nails. She wore a lot of accessories and had a particular penchant for hats, in her later years matching her hat to her outfit. For most of her life, she seemed to crave independence, marrying her second husband on the promise that she could enjoy his money and his title but continue her own, largely separate life. Once, when she failed to return home to spend Christmas with her young daughter, leaving her in the care of her grandmother, the two of them burned her collection of designer hats in retaliation.
One of her most famous paintings, a self-portrait commissioned as the cover of Die Dame, shows her in the driver’s seat of a green Bugatti – in reality, she drove a yellow Renault. The image has been hailed as a symbol of the modern woman, and for me, it says a lot about how she saw herself. It can be tricky to unpick all the anecdotes surrounding her, which she often reworked and retold to portray herself in a flattering light, but researching her life has taught me that her moulding of the truth was an extension of her self-styling. It’s been fascinating getting to know the many overlapping sides of her.
What is your favourite thing that you’ve written/worked on/researchedthis year?
I enjoyed writing my first essay on Margiela and memory, for which I watched the documentary Martin Margiela: In His Own Words. It was clear that his childhood memories played an essential role in his work and that his ideas around creating memories influenced his creativity. For example, at one show, the models – who walked among the audience – were perfumed with patchouli, playing on sensory memory. For my second essay, I looked at hundreds of images from ‘the golden age of the lido’ in 1930s Britain, which was, for me, great fun.
What is something you’ve read this year that you would recommend to anyone?
Early in the year, we read the first chapter from Daniel Miller’s Stuff, titled ‘Why Clothing is not Superficial’. His discussion of Trinidadian ideas of the self as constantly evolving, existing on the surface (rather than somewhere buried within, built up incrementally over time) so that it must be sustained day by day in actions and choices – including in wardrobe choices – deepened my understanding of why clothes feel so important.
Where do you get your clothes from?
I’m relatively serious about eBay. Closely monitoring saved search alerts and frantically trying to outbid any rivals in the final seconds of an auction has brought me lots of joy and frustration over the years, as well as a wardrobe full of things that I love to look at but that don’t necessarily fit me well. I keep a collection of screenshots of the wildest photos that people use to sell their clothes. Also, charity shops in fancy areas and anything that my friends are getting rid of.
How would you describe your style?
It was described to me today as ‘very last season Arket’, which I think is fairly accurate. I like to look at extravagant, sparkly clothes, but I want to feel as comfy as I can get away with, so cosy jumpers in the winter, cotton dresses in the summer and when in doubt, jeans. Anything that could be pyjamas but could also be worn out is the goal.
Claridge, Laura. Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence (London, 2001)
De Lempicka-Foxhall, Kizette and Charles Phillips. Passion by Design: The Art and Times of Tamara de Lempicka (New York, 1987)
Holzemer, Reiner. Martin Margiela: In His Own Words, cinematographer Toon Illegems (2020; London: Dogwoof)
Miller, Daniel. ‘Why Clothing is not Superficial’ in Stuff (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 12-41
The maternal body is still a contentious subject. In the 21st century, the British tabloids have continued to eerily rate celebrity bumps. In retaliation, women have taken social media sharing their heart-breaking realities of miscarriages and difficult births. Of course, these discussions are vital for changing the abject tabloid outlook on maternity. But it shouldn’t just be down to women. What power do men have to start the conversation and subvert rigid ideals around the maternal body?
As Francesca Granata discusses in Experimental Fashion, Western systems of thought around the maternal body have been consistently reductive. Since the Enlightenment and the valuation of dualism/the Cartesian model, men have aligned women to nature and purity, thenceforth the birth process has been dematerialised and elevated to mythical status. Neglect and misrepresentation of the female experience is the product of this system of thought which, in turn, has contributed to the success of femininity.
Leigh Bowery, a performance artist and designer notable for his work in the ‘80s, experimented with the subject of the maternal body. Throughout his career, Bowery was fascinated with the leaky and malleable body.
Bowery performed a piece at Wigstock (New York) in 1993 wearing an oversized costume that features a distinctive bump on his stomach. At the end of the performance, Bowery gets up onto a metal table (that uncomfortably resembles a post-mortem bench) and spreads his legs. His assistant (Nicola Bowery) peels through the stretch material between Bowery’s legs and reveals herself, fully naked and covered in red liquid: “The first baby born at Wigstock!” Bowery shouts.
This graphic and violent scene, Granata says, “externalises and renders visible the problematic Western understanding of the maternal body and, by extension, the female body.” The material contrast between Leigh’s oversized costume and Nicola’s naked body inserted into the seams of the costume challenges the idea that the maternal body as a dematerialised object and space, whilst also drawing on the violence of the birth process.
About 30 years on, the ideas around the maternal body and gender performance have inevitably progressed. Bowery’s avant-garde birthing performances relied on nuance and violence whereas now, subtle, more empathetic forms are applied to the exposition of the maternal body.
Drag has become a mainstream form of entertainment in the UK. Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK first aired in 2019, introducing a wider audience to the scene. And drag queens, just like Bowery, have incorporated the pregnant body into their performance.
In Series 1, Episode 7, of Drag Race UK (2019), judge Michelle Visage commented on Divina de Campo’s artificial baby-bump: “There’s nothing more drag than a pregnant drag queen… It’s a big middle finger to society.” The runway task for this episode was to dress up one female family member. Divina’s sister (who was given the name Delisha de Campo) was four months pregnant when she came onto the show. Divina’s empathy for her sister’s maternal condition is palpable and Ru Paul said that the subtle adaptation to the silhouette was “a stroke of genius.”
The reaction to Divina’s bump demonstrates the maternal body in direct opposition to the fashionable silhouette of womenswear, as well as being in opposition to the rigid construction of femininity. As Granata says: “The twentieth-century fashion body remains one of the most articulate attempts at the creation of a ‘perfect’ and perfectly contained body restrained and sealed.” In the 21st century, the costumed pregnant body defies this entirely.
The performance of the clothed body is fertile ground for progressive ideas. Men costuming the maternal body encourages the normalisation of women’s lumps and bumps and at the same time disrupts the idea that issues surrounding femininity are purely a woman’s issue to deal with. Performance art and drag are examples of ways to subvert the norms. By way of creative freedom and empathy for female matter, the Modern man can blur gender boundaries and inspire a powerful subversion which at once frees them and their peers.
By Bethan Eleri Carrick
Francesca Granata, Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body. I.B Tauris, 2017.
Last week, I watched Helmut Newton: The Bad and The Beautiful. This candid biopic explores Newton’s complex legacy as a photographer through a series of his most provocative images and interviews with the women who featured in them. Amongst Newton’s iconic shots of Claudia Schiffer, Charlotte Rampling and Marianne Faithful, I found myself struck by a grainy black and white photograph hanging on the wall of his New York apartment. A cropped shot of a woman’s legs in stockings, dramatically illuminated against a dark background, it is an evocative rendering of the female form. Whilst it possesses the same sensual quality as Newton’s photographs, it is not his work. It was taken by Else Neulander Neuman, otherwise known as Yva, the Weimar photographer who had mentored Newton in the early days of his career.
Yva was a leading photographer in Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s. Inspired by the creative atmosphere of the Bauhaus, Objectivism and German Expressionism movements, she used theatrical lighting and clean geometric lines, to create a sophisticated and refined image of glamour. In the male-dominated sphere of fashion photography which often propagated a sexualised model of femininity, her elegant and allusive photographs of women provided a refreshing outlook on female beauty.
Yva’s most iconic images were her stocking advertisements. Using close-cropped shots and theatrical lighting, she put the focus on the texture of the garment and immersed the female viewer in an act of ‘haptic seeing’. The photograph which Newton had hung on his wall was from an advertisement she shot for UHU in 1929 titled Schöne Beine in schönen Strümpfen (Beautiful Legs in Beautiful Stockings). The dramatic lighting of the woman’s legs against the nebulous dark background serves not only to highlight the form of the woman’s knees, shins and ankles, but also to emphasise the contrast between the grainy texture of the mass-produced stockings and the soft satin of her shoes. In its rich and sensuous depiction of the different textures, it encourages the women to imagine themselves wearing the stockings, with the visual focus not solely on the leg, nor solely on the stocking, but rather on the relationship between the item of clothing and the body. Yva’s photographs for magazines such as Die Dame and Elegante Welt provided a feminine perspective of products, engaging with female consumers’ sense of sight as well as touch.
Looking at Yva’s work, I have come to understand Newton’s photography in a different way. As shown by the stocking advertisement he had hung in his flat, he drew inspiration from her use of ‘haptic seeing’ to immerse the women in a multi-sensory experience of the latest fashions. Although he was not a woman, having understood the world through Yva’s eyes and indeed lens, he created photographs which spoke directly to the female consumer and her needs and desires.
By Violet Caldecott
Belting, Hans, ‘The Transparency of the Medium: The Photographic Image,’ in An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2011)
Hatton, Hayley, Yva: shattered vision, The tragic hidden legacy of one of history’s most visionary photographers, Dazed and Confused, July 2008
For hundreds of years, women’s fashion has been a magnet for satire and mockery. A woman interested in fashion, astutely observed by feminist scholar Sandra Clark, is often associated with two ‘fruitful themes of misogyny’: frivolous excess and overt sexuality. In a brief (yet repeating) and curious phenomenon, London in the year 1620 saw such satire distort itself into an attack on a particular type of fashionable women – those who were dressing and acting like men.
We should, first, imagine ourselves in the bustling streets of London in the year 1620; King James I was the first Scottish king as the increasingly urban capital became populated with an emerging merchant class that was – controversially, of course – wealthier than ever before. The English Renaissance was at its peak, and theatrical culture was flourishing. Nestled among this transforming social landscape of seventeenth-century England was the strange and sudden condemnation of women wearing men’s clothes.
Evidence of this first emerged in a letter written on 25 January 1620 by prolific author John Chamberlain to a friend outside of the capital. A new fashion was spreading across London, it seemed – he wrote of women in ‘broad brimmed hats’, ‘pointed doublets’, with their hair ‘cut short’. ‘The world is very far out of order’, he lamented. King James I must have too felt a disruption to gendered stability and instructed all bishops and preachers in London to ‘to inveigh vehemently and bitterly … against the insolence of our women’ via their sermons.
Soon after the King’s reported orders to the pulpit, on February 9 1620 an anonymously written pamphlet was printed and distributed around London, hatefully entitled Hic Mulier, or, the Man-Woman. A vitriolic document, it is addressed to the fictional titular character Hic Mulier, a cross-dressing woman who has ‘cast off the ornaments of [her] sexes, to put on the garments of Shame’. These garments of shame, much like the letter of John Chamberlain, included a ‘broad-brim’d Hatte, and wanton feather’, and the ‘loose, lascivious embracement of a French doublet, being all unbutton’d to entice all of one[‘s] shape’. To this pamphlet’s anonymous author, the Hic Mulier type, in her confusingly masculine-yet-seductive garments was represented in growing numbers of ‘city wives’ – the new class of wealthy mercantile (not aristocrats nor gentry) women.
Up until this point, fashion was something heavily regulated by the Crown. Sumptuary legislation ensured that only those of high status could wear fine clothes and fabrics like lace and silk. But repeated proclamations of these laws in 1574, 1577, 1580, 1588, and 1597, can only suggest alarm from the government at the growing agency of fashion. For the first time, too, the legislation specifically imposes restrictions on not just men but their wives. Women, clearly, in the context of apparel, were becoming increasingly independent. Fashion itself was upsetting social and gendered order, and as the merchant class became established, the explosion of the cross-dressing controversy in 1620 epitomised this this. Indeed, in the weeks following Hic Mulier, or, the Man-Woman, two more satirist pamphlets featuring the cross-dressing women were rapidly published and circulated.
In such a rigid and orderly society, men’s clothes were obviously perceived differently on women’s bodies. The scandalously unbuttoned doublet worn by the androgyne in Hic Mulier was not uncommon in men for in the early seventeenth century; indeed, it was fashionable particularly for artists or poets to sport a somewhat unkempt appearance with open collars and their doublets undone. A woman in an unbuttoned doublet, of course, was no longer melancholic and artistic but immodest and enticing, revealing the natural shape of her body. According to the pamphlets, the cross-dressed woman was the antithesis to the modest, feminine woman, and ‘will give her body to have her bodie deformed’. Crucially, to these moralists, Hic Mulier was conversely masculine in both behaviour and appearance (even carrying a dagger for duelling) yet promiscuous and ‘bawdy’.
This masculine fashion trend clearly exacerbated patriarchal fears of the overtly sexual woman who both looked and indeed acted like a man. But the issue of fashion is also integral – to moralists, wearing masculine clothing served to accentuate a woman’s sexuality, but also highlighted her vanity and frivolity. Unsurprisingly, the illustration on the title page of Hic Mulier depicts a woman in a broad-brimmed feathered hat looking at herself in a mirror.
The only evidence of these masculine-presenting women is in the written criticism and condemnation by men. But it’s affirming that, against the backdrop of socially fluid, urban and increasingly commodified London, a subverting trend in women’s fashion was able to briefly disturb the rigidity of the royal court, pulpit, and press. Although we will never know how many women really cross-dressed in early seventeenth century or what type of women participated, one thing is clear: as long as women’s changing fashions has long caused crises among the male ruling classes, women have been purposefully dressing to subvert, dupe, disguise and express themselves.
By Kathryn Reed
Clark, Sandra, ‘”Hic Mulier”, “Haec Vir”, and the Controversy over Masculine Women, Studies in Philology 82 2 (1985), pp. 157-183
Hooper, Wilfrid, ‘The Tudor Sumptuary Laws’, The English Historical Review 30 119 (1915), p. 433-449
Newman, Karen, Fashioning Femininity: Femininity and English Renaissance Drama (Chicago, 1991)
Vincent, Susan J., ‘“When I am in Good Habitt”: Clothes in English Culture c. 1550 – c. 1670’ (PhD dissertation, University of York, 2002)