Author Archives: Lauren

H.R Haweis, The Art of Beauty (1878)

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In The Art of Beauty (1878), English writer H.R Haweis synthesises a series of previously published articles centred on the importance of beauty, dress and physical appearance. The work can be characterised as an ardent apology for the significance of dress and, simultaneously, an advice manual targeted exclusively at women that both encourages and teaches them to take pride and care in their appearance.

At the outset, Haweis announces her central argument and writes, “[t]he culture of beauty is everywhere a legitimate art.” She attempts to remedy dress and beauty’s maligned reputation as frivolous by claiming its exalted status as a dignified art form. To defend her declaration, she classifies dress as akin to other established varieties of art, such as sculpture, painting and architecture, all of which, she believes, ought to be governed by principles of form, colour, shade and proportion. She takes an evaluative approach to beauty and adheres to the Ruskinian tradition that praises truth to materials and nature. She favours clothing and accessories that accentuate, rather than falsify, the natural self. For example, she expresses vehement disdain for overly high heels that strain the spine and for stays that distort the natural lines and proportions of the figure, preventing internal organs from functioning properly.

The work is divided into four books. ‘Beauty and Dress’ focuses on proper and ideal forms of clothing, ‘Beauty and Headdress’, outlines principles governing head accessories, ‘Beauty and Surroundings’ explains the role interior décor plays in enhancing one’s appearance and, finally, ‘A Garden of Girls’, catalogues a variety of women who may appear hopeless, but whom she assures the reader can achieve beauty so long as they heed her advice.

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The Art of Beauty occupies an important position within the history of dress, as it constitutes one of the first literary attempts to apply aesthetic principles to modes of self-presentation. Haweis transcends the conventional women’s magazine mandate to promote the latest fashions in Victorian England and, instead, praises clothing for its artistic truth. Her serious tone and scrupulous attention to historical detail justify her authoritative statements and render her text cogent and sophisticated.

Although Haweis’ work was published in 1878, her concerted effort to reform the way people thought about beauty and ameliorate its status remains relevant to the contemporary discourse of fashion. A plethora of publications have contributed to a rich corpus of scholarship on dress, however, the area of research is oftentimes undeservedly perceived as trivial and unworthy of scholarly inquiry. Haweis’ text, while comprehensive and argumentative, is not officially scholarly insofar as she assumes an expressly evaluative approach to dress, claiming outright that it must be classified either as good or bad depending on its adherence to certain artistic principles. Her assertion that dress and beauty is tantamount to art rests on the assessment of formal qualities alone. Despite its limitations, The Art of Beauty can be seen as paving the way for future writers to explore the importance of dress and modes of appearance. Current scholars diverge from Haweis insofar as they favour analysing the socio-political and cultural dimensions of dress, rather than solely formal qualities, yet connect with her in their endeavor to assert the value of beauty and dress.

50 YEARS OF HISTORY OF DRESS AT THE COURTAULD Alumni Interviews Part Five: Jennifer Potter, MA (2014)

Each month in 2015, we will post an interview with one of our alumni, as part of our celebrations of this year’s auspicious anniversary. The Courtauld’s History of Dress students have gone on to forge careers in a diverse and exciting range of areas.  We hope you enjoy reading about their work, and their memories of studying here.

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Jennifer Potter, MA (2014)

Jennifer Potter is a graduate intern at the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles where she assists in developing grant-making programs in various areas of the arts including museum-work and conservation. Additionally, she is currently involved in the Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, a series of thematically linked exhibitions across Southern California that explore Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles.

What led you to pursue graduate studies in the field of dress and fashion and what attracted you to the Courtauld in particular?

As an undergraduate, I studied art history and thought that I wanted to become a curator, but I always had a personal interest in fashion. A pivotal experience for me was seeing the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris where I realized that fashion, like art, connected more broadly to identity and ways of seeing the self. I decided to pursue graduate study in art history, and I knew that I wanted to focus on history of dress and textiles. I was always interested in the visual representation of dress so I think this is what attracted me most to the program at the Courtauld. I also especially wanted to study with Dr. Rebecca Arnold, given her prominent reputation in the field.

 You graduated in 2014. What was the topic and structure of your MA course? 

The topic of my MA course was Documenting Fashion: Modernity, Films, and Image in America and Europe, 1920-1945. The course consisted of two parts. In the first term, we studied key methodologies in dress history, and, in the second term, we focused in on American and European fashion and identity during the interwar period. In particular, we looked at fashion’s representation in documentary photography and non-fiction film. The course consisted of seminar-style discussion and object study in several London art and dress collections, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Museum of London. We also had the opportunity to travel abroad to Washington, D.C. to visit the archives in Library of Congress and the National Museum of American History.

 What was the subject of your dissertation?

My dissertation focused on Irene Castle, an early twentieth-century American social dancer who is most remembered for her refined style of exhibition ballroom dance that she performed in a gown of flowing silk chiffon. My paper argued that Castle used dress as a means of self-promotion and as a marketing tool for modern dance. Through a visual study of three key performance from her career, I situated the dancer within the media and consumer culture of the early twentieth century and positioned her as a key figure in the emergence of the modern woman.

 You were a Student Ambassador during your time at the Courtauld. What did that position entail and did it have a positive impact on your time at the Courtauld?  

As a Student Ambassador, I regularly met with prospective students to share my experience studying at the Courtauld and living in Central London. I had a very positive experience at the Courtauld, and I loved being able to share this with others. I also enjoyed learning about people’s diverse interests within the history of art. MA work is often very solitary and isolating so it was refreshing to meet and share my passion with other students.

What did you gain most from studying at the Courtauld?

The most important skill that I gained from the Courtauld was the ability to flesh out key ideas from a large body of text. I also learned how to analyze objects and images closely.

 You are currently interning at the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles, can you describe your role there?

As the graduate intern in the Getty Foundation, I have the opportunity to learn about arts and culture philanthropy by working on international grant-making programs in the areas of art history, conservation, museum practice, and professional development. My primary task is to assist the Program Officers in administering grants which includes reviewing incoming grant applications, composing acknowledgement letters and internal grant write-ups, and updating grants information in the FLUXX database system. As a more long-term project, I am responsible for conducting an evaluation of the Foundation’s professional development grants, a program that supports the attendance of colleagues from developing countries at large-scale international forums for professional exchange. This task involves reading through many historical grant files and drafting reports with recommendations for moving forward.

I also have the opportunity to contribute to the Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, a series of thematically linked exhibitions across Southern California that explore Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles. In particular, I am working with the Deputy Director to help plan a convention for the research and curatorial assistants associated with the exhibitions.

Foundation work is diverse and dynamic, and I have gained a deep understanding of the lifecycle of a grant, including research, assessment, and evaluation.

Did studying dress at the Courtauld provide you with any particular skills – analytic or practical- that have proven useful in your current job and/or any other of your recent endeavors?

Besides (arguably) being the best dressed person at the Getty, studying dress has made me incredibly detail-oriented and visually-aware. These qualities are especially helpful in my current work in the Foundation where I am constantly multi-tasking among different tasks.

 You completed your undergraduate studies in Florida, your graduate studies in the UK and you are currently working in California. Have you noticed that the different places you have visited possess unique fashion trends?

I think that the social culture of a place and the weather influences fashion trends. At my large university in Florida, there was a lot of comradery around the school and the sports teams, and this shaped how people dress (orange and blue!). Given the climate, there was also a lot of Lilly Pulitzer and flip flops. In London, black was definitely the uniform. Now, in California, I find the fashion to be very laidback and bohemian. Especially in Santa Monica where I live, many people dress for an easy transition to the beach or the gym. I find it really refreshing.

 Describe your style. Has studying the history of dress had any effect on your fashion choices?  

My style is constantly evolving. I travel and move around a lot so I definitely find that how I dress is influenced by where I am. I like to follow trends, but I also am a self-described vegan hippie who enjoys dressing up a pair of yoga pants and making morally- and ethically-minded purchases.

I think that studying the history of dress has actually made me more confident and adventurous in what I choose to wear. I now understand how dress is bound up with body image and identity so it really has become my primary means of expressing myself to the world.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

I see myself living somewhere sunny and warm, working in a job that I love, and surrounded by a community of like-minded people who support me.

The White Wedding Dress in ‘For Richer, For Poorer: Weddings Unveiled’ at the Jewish Museum


The Jewish Museum recently opened a small but evocative exhibition showcasing the history of Jewish weddings in Britain from the 1880s to the mid-twentieth century. When walking through the exhibition I came across intimate, precious and rare objects relating to weddings that ranged from a local Jewish matchmaker’s recorded notes to bills for wedding cakes and other hefty expenses. The exhibition is formatted chronologically, and charts the evolution of Jewish weddings with reference to seminal historical and cultural events such as the two World Wars and the shift from predominantly arranged marriages to the custom of courtship that became popularized in the 1920s.


For an exhibition documenting the changes within the traditions of Jewish weddings over several decades, I was struck by a remarkable sense of continuity that linked the marital photographs and videos from disparate times. I was bombarded with a plethora of images that invariably featured a blushing bride wearing a white dress and armed with a veil, bouquet of flowers and, of course, a smile. The fashion rhetoric belonging to weddings is evidently deeply entrenched in tradition, as the white, fancy, and long gown continues to be mainstay of the celebratory ritual in contemporary times. Of course, the evolution of trends has inevitably resulted in modifications to the wedding dress in terms of cut, length and fabric. The general silhouette and colour, however, have astonishingly remained virtually the same. For instance, upon examining a wedding dress from 1905 displayed in the museum, I could not help but establish stylistic parallels between my conception of the contemporary white wedding dress and the clearly outdated one situated before me. This dress is, in fact, not a single garment but a silk ensemble consisting of a blouse, belt, skirt and petticoat. Richly ornate, the ruched sleeves and ruffled neck of the blouse are echoed in the matching long skirt with interchanging panels of ruffles and intricate lace details, culminating with several frilled layers at the bottom. While the outfit’s separate pieces and excess of materials render it firmly embedded in its past historical context, the modern day wedding dress is merely a pared down version – conventionally a singular dress rather than an ensemble, often containing minor lace or ruched detailing.


The white wedding dress was first popularized in the Victorian era and has persisted throughout centuries, becoming a crucial component of the white wedding phenomenon pervading Western culture. In this vein, although the exhibition focuses exclusively on Jewish weddings in Britain, the static nature of marital fashion fosters a sense of universality, as the fancy white wedding dress’ ubiquity cuts across national, ethnic and class divides.


MA Study Trip to New York City: High Fashion in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Revue Blanche

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Revue Blanche, 1895, Lithograph, MoMA.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Revue Blanche, 1895, Lithograph, MoMA.
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Detail of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Revue Blanche, 1895, Lithograph, MoMA.

Our MA New York City study trip fortunately coincided with ‘The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters’ exhibition currently on view at the MoMA. As the name suggests, an amalgam of images capturing bustling fin-de-siècle Parisian culture through Lautrec’s lens are arranged thematically for visitors to enjoy. From nightlife culture in dance halls and pubs, to female performers and prostitutes, the exhibition highlights Lautrec’s diverse portfolio. Lautrec’s representations of subjects and venues that fall short of respectability signal his repudiation of his aristocratic roots and the snobbery that characterized high-class culture. Plagued with a genetically generated illness that resulted in severely stunted growth and reliance on a cane to walk, Lautrec’s abnormal appearance perhaps contributed to his artistic affinity to more obscure subjects such as bohemians, prostitutes and criminals.

While the exhibition underscores the democratic nature of Lautrec’s art, a perusal of several of his posters led me to think otherwise. In particular, his images of women in lavish dress connote an air of exclusivity. For example, La Revue Blanche is a poster that features a woman wearing an ornate dress paired with ample accessories. Her long-sleeved dress is decorated with a sea of orange polka dots that stand out from the garment’s deep midnight blue hue. Its exaggerated puffed sleeves culminate at the woman’s elbows, becoming tight around her forearms and wrists. Matching light grey fur pieces wrap around her left hand and envelop her neck and shoulders. The fur accessories are embellished with red designs that are sea-creature-like in shape. Intricate swirls of dark and light green feathers dramatically emanate from the round hat that secures a translucent, but dotted, veil covering her ivory complexion. The variety of colours, embellishments, textures and volumes of the woman’s dress convey an opulent sense of style, diluting the sense of ‘everyday’ and ‘ordinary’ characterizing Lautrec’s oeuvre. The woman’s stern facial features further create a barrier between her and viewers. Her pursed lips and slightly furrowed eyebrows form a surly and unwelcoming expression.

In addition to the woman’s elevated fashion, the poster’s stylistic affinity to high fashion illustrations contributed to my perception of its prestige. Despite the historical time difference, I detected several parallels between La Revue Blanche and early 20th century illustrations featured in high-class magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. The isolated woman positioned against a blank backdrop, seemingly unaware of onlookers in the midst of walking or moving, is a standard compositional framework of high fashion illustrations. Moreover, the inaccurate rendering of details and imprecise brushwork are stylistic trademarks of illustrations that convey a sense of dynamism and capture a passing moment. The uneven application of jagged dots on the woman’s dress, the patchy colour gradations and undelineated contours in Lautrec’s poster reflect this loose style.

Despite the chronological implausibility of Lautrec’s connection to early 20th century high fashion illustrations, the woman’s dress and features still convey an air of sophistication and elegance that belies the bohemian thrust of his art.

Fashion Food: Designer Bread Bags

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Chloe Wise, Bagel No. 5, oil paint, urethane, sesame seeds and found hardware, 2014.
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Chloe Wise, Ain’t No Challah Back(pack) Girl oil paint, urethane, sesame seeds, solicited Prada hardware 2014.

The internet went into hysterics after pictures surfaced of actress India Menuez sporting a cream-cheese bagel as a purse at the premiere of Baz Luhrmann’s Chanel No.5-inspired film, The One That I Want.  It was not the carb couture itself that elicited intrigue, but the Chanel medallion dangling from the strange bag. Several magazines and blogs heralded the item as the newest of Karl Lagerfeld’s genius creations including Racked, who published an article with the headline, ‘How Can we Buy This Chanel Bagel Clutch Right Now?’ Bloggers and Chanel enthusiasts would be disappointed to learn that this bagel bag they have come to admire and covet is not in fact a bag, but a sculpture by Canadian artist Chloe Wise.

Entitled, Bagel No.5, a satirical reference to the iconic perfume Chanel No.5, the cream-cheese bagel exists as part of Wise’s sculptural series that integrate various forms of bread with different designer hardware. Included in the series is a challah with two large straps on either side, stamped with a triangular Prada label called, Ain’t No Challah Back(pack) Girl. Wise’s intriguing sculptures tackle the themes of banality and frivolity often ascribed to designer items. The concept of a food item as an accessory turns from outright absurd to utterly magnificent with the mere addition of a notable logo. Wise’s duping the Internet demonstrates the way the credulous masses will flock towards anything because it is branded – a literal stamp signifying high fashion’s metaphorical stamp of approval.

Wise’s work further comments on the commodification of identity. Her choice of synthetic bread as an artistic material underscores her commentary on high-end fashion products operating as status symbols. Upon contemplating the medium, one thinks of the concept ‘breadwinner’, the money-earner, as well as ‘dough’, a slang term for cash. In a similar way that her bread bags highlight the commodification of women’s status and identity, her ‘Irregular Tampon’ series speaks to the commodification of female individuality. A satirical spin off of tampon adverts that tout a variety of tampons catering to different types of girls, Wise creates non-functional tampons out of various materials. Wise presents the quinoa tampon for healthy girls, along with a slew of other inane varieties.

While commodification is a ubiquitous phenomenon, Wise’s oeuvre is distinctly focused on conventionally female products, such as purses and tampons. This is hardly surprising given the fact that fashion, consumerism and frivolity have been gendered female. While both females and males have been guilty of falling into consumerist traps, as well as participating within the field of fashion, the vain woman shopaholic stereotype persists, while men remain virtually free from such derogatory depictions.



How Ginger Got the Job!


When researching American fashion advertising in the interwar period, I came across a J.C. Penney advertisement located in a 1939 edition of McCall’s Style News. The ad employs a comic book format, synthesising text and image to relay a narrative promoting the department store’s affordable, yet stylish fabrics. Readers are introduced to Ginger, a young woman who is initially portrayed as a pathetic character, a conventional trope of the tremendously popular comic book genre. After failing at her job interview, a defeated Ginger sorrowfully cries to her friend: ‘Oh Peg… What’s the matter with me?’ Peg proceeds to denounce Ginger’s dowdy dress and introduces her to the materials at J.C. Penney’s which Ginger uses to fabricate a stylish outfit for a second interview that she managed to get. Ginger is later pictured wearing her new patterned dress paired with a hat and bag, having successfully secured a job. The narrative ends with a neat resolution in which a newly confident and employed Ginger expresses her joyful realisation of the potential for fashion to elicit happiness and bolster confidence.

This advertisement sheds light on women’s shifting roles during the period and underscores the importance for women from all ranks of society to make sound fashionable choices. On the one hand, the advertisement affords women with power in that it situates women as viable and active participants in the working world, a realm previously associated exclusively with masculinity. The context of the Great Depression, along with the increasing visibility of women’s rights movements are two of several factors that resulted in more women needing to work. On the other hand, the advertisement problematically associates women’s success and happiness with outward appearance as opposed to ability and intellect. According to the advert’s narrative, Ginger failed to succeed in landing a job because of the dowdy nature of her clothing rather than a poor interview performance. Once she remedied her unfashionable appearance, she secured a job. Moreover, Ginger derives her newfound confidence not from the accomplishment of employment, but rather from her fashionable clothes, she expresses: ‘I never realized before how much confidence a smart outfit gives a girl!’ Additionally, she revels in the idea that she can be the ‘best dressed girl in the office’, as opposed to performing the best.

While fashion advertisements and comics are often deemed trivial, they play a hand at engendering, cementing and disseminating societal norms. Adverts such as the J.C Penney comic associate female success and happiness with appearance and, as a corollary, nourish the essentialist conception that women are merely ornamental. Although this advertisement dates back to the late 30s, the immense pressure for women to resemble beauty and fashionable ideals has persisted to the present day.

Alexander Wang x H&M Collection

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Another year, another collaboration – Alexander Wang x H&M

After an endless slew of sneak peaks, ad campaign previews and instagram teasers, the highly anticipated Alexander Wang x H&M collection, announced at Coachella in April, finally hit the stores on November 6th. The inordinately long queues of eager shoppers wrapping around several blocks across many cities, many of whom slept on the pavement to ensure access to the collection, and H&M’s website crash due to excessive traffic, are testament to the collaboration’s popularity and tremendous success. It took only a few days for the majority of the collection to sell out. However those disappointed in missing out, need not fret as several of the collection’s coveted items are available on eBay, although with fairly sizeable mark ups. For instance, one puffa jacket that retailed at £249.99 is currently listed on the site for a staggering £599.99.

A distinct athletic theme runs throughout the collection, with the clothing and accessories adhering to Wang’s signature monochromatic colour palette limited to blacks and greys. The fashion show promoting the line aptly had a running track as a runway, the center of which housed a gymnasium structure replete with bars, weights and a trampoline. While sportswear has increasingly infiltrated everyday street-wear, items in this collection contain functional detailing rendering them appropriately suited for the gym. The performance potential of the clothing is evident with the use of water-resistant fabrics, reflective strips, side ventilation zips and quick-drying t-shirts. The accessories of real-life boxing gloves, goggles and a magnetized Alexander Wang trophy cup underscore the sporty theme. Above and beyond the practicality of the collection is the tough and edgy vibe of the clothing that is achieved through the use of unconventional materials, fabrics and textures. The sweatshirts, t-shirts, leggings, coats, crop tops and bralettes contain mesh, scuba and latex detailing.

The fashion frenzy Alexander Wang x H&M elicited was easy to predict given the precedent of collaborations between high-end designers and low-end retailors. Such collaborations have become an annual staple of H&M, as the company has put forth collections by Isabel Marant, Karl Lagerfeld, Lanvin, Stella McCartney and Jimmy Choo. Other retailors have jumped on the ‘high-end for low-end’ bandwagon, which has become a fashion formula that seems to ensure commercial success. For example, Target has released collections by Missoni and Phillip Lim, both of which incited levels hysteria tantamount to that of Wang’s collection.

The cachet of brand names is predominantly what attracts flocks of consumers and drives the success of such collaborations. One quickly detects a pattern when flipping through the Alexander Wang x H&M lookbook – the inclusion of ‘WANG’ is featured on virtually every article of clothing and accessory. The prominence of the designer’s name plastered throughout the collection’s items literalizes the phenomenon of brand desirability that permeates contemporary fashion culture. There is a strange pleasure that exists in wearing something discernably designer, as high-end retail is associated with exclusivity, notoriety and affluence. Introducing designer collections to more conventional stores and drastically lowering astronomical price points renders designer items accessible to the masses for a limited period of time. People feel compelled to take advantage of the rare opportunity to acquire apparel and accessories associated with a famous designer or brand name, despite the cheaper quality in comparison to actual designer products. The widespread phenomenon of brand obsession speaks to the way elements of dress are viewed as status symbols, where designer items are exalted to a position of eminence within the fashion hierarchy.