Tomorrow the Documenting Fashion class of 2019 graduates. Here, as a farewell, we reflect on the past year through items of clothing which we feel summarise our learning and experiences at the Courtauld.
You’ve heard of wearing your heart on your sleeve…
I found this photograph an annoying couple of weeks after submitting the plans for my virtual exhibition, Eyes on Me: The Spectacle of the Worn Gaze. Archaeologist Howard Carter uncovered the tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922, a moment that not only made its mark upon history and the collective imagination, but also manifested itself in art and fashion and upon women’s bodies …
Neither brevity nor synthesis is my forte, but were I to distill this year into a dress, it would be this ‘Egyptomanic’ mousseline Chanel shift. It represents a piece in history I am now equipped to trace and that maxim of ‘eyes wide open’ that has now both inspired and troubled me for years.
This is a sketch by Bonnie Cashin that we viewed during our visit to the FIT archives in New York. Here, the details of the outfit itself are rendered loosely and it’s not quite clear what the finished garments would have looked like. What I love about this sketch, and others by Cashin, is the levity with which she fashions her image of woman. There is a playfulness in the words written at the top of the page: ‘I’m a career girl — I keep it all in two attaches!’ I don’t know the exact date of this sketch, but I imagine it corresponds with her time designing for Coach in the 1960s, during which she created some of their most iconic designs.
The caption, while playful and charming, also touches on something much greater. It relates to the sociocultural shift of women entering the workforce in the postwar period, and how these changes were mediated by fashion, consumption and played out on the body. For me, this sketch captures many of the relevant discussions in our course throughout the year, situating the (stylishly) fashioned body among its social and historical context, all the while maintaining a fun and light tone which made our year deeply engaging and enormously enjoyable.
Fashion is Timelessly Relevant.
If I were to distill this year into an outfit, it would be this look by Azzedine Alaïa from his winter 1986 collection. This ensemble, although designed in the 80s, is something you would see on the street today. It symbolizes the fact that fashion and ideas about fashion can transcend time, which was the conclusion I drew from my MA course. The course was tremendously enriching, and I learned so much about the history of fashion between 1920-1960 through image and film. Most satisfying of all was the realization that everything that I learned is entirely pertinent to my contemporary fashion interests. We were taught to ascertain relevant overarching themes and think critically about issues pertaining to the crucial role dress plays in society and culture.
This look in particular epitomizes for me the way in which Alaïa’s designs are timeless – as are the ideas to which I was exposed this year. This outfit, created almost 40 years ago, is one I would and in fact do, in a way, wear today. While our relationship to dress may differ with time, the vital role fashion plays in reflecting and yes, also in constructing the air du temps, has remained a constant, which demonstrates just how communicative dress can be. I am confident that I can now charge ahead to seek a career in the fashion industry, given the foundation of knowledge I have obtained. In the meantime I will be dreaming about someday being able to afford this outfit …
The outfit which sums up the year for me is the women’s football kit from the late-1910s and early-1920s. For me personally, it reflects how I discovered a love of sport history since starting the course. But it also reflects many of the the themes which we learned about and discussed during our MA. We have looked closely at the significance of clothing in relation to constructions of gender, learning how clothes can both reflect ideologies surrounding gender but also reinforce them through the lived experience of wearing certain clothes. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries women were expected to wear very specific types of clothing that reflected notions of ‘femininity’. This clothing was often very restrictive, including corsets and large, unwieldy skirts. So the football kit, traditionally worn by men, posed a huge threat to traditional values – changing both the outward expression of what women were and could be and also the lived experience of the women wearing this loose, comfortable outfit.
The outfit also highlights the importance of movement and gesture in our understandings of dress. Joanne Eicher defines ‘dress’ as including not just clothing itself but also body-modification, personal hygiene and stance. The football kit is fascinating because it changes the way the players’ present themselves in photographs compared to earlier images of women. Furthermore, watching film footage of women playing football in this period brings the outfit to life, showing the changing movements of women and highlighting the importance of sports clothing to this. Ultimately, to me, the female football kit represents my dissertation – the culmination of an intense but fascinating and growthful year!
This outfit represents the latter part of the MA year for me. I wrote about the anachronistic costume in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, and out of all the monochrome madness that was going on with the costumes, this is one of my top picks.
It comes at a moment of peak excess in the film for Emma Stone’s character, Abigail, as she ascends from servant to Queen Anne’s favourite. I love the way the film’s costume designer, Sandy Powell, uses the correct silhouette for the mantua style of the time, but experiments with her limited palette and produces this striped bonanza of a dress.
This costume is representative of the year for me, as the course has allowed me to combine my love of history of art, fashion history and film costume, and my enthusiasm for my dissertation consequently knew no bounds! Thank you to Rebecca and congrats to my fellow MAs! X
This year it very much feels like everything I have worked on, been fascinated with, motivated by; has revolved around time – its linearity, its contradictions when explored through a fashion historical lens, its kinks, apertures, and its tendency to double ‘back on itself’ . For my Virtual Exhibition assessment, I looked at what it would mean to encourage a conversation within the walls of a historic space that is known to have inspired a multitude of groundbreaking fashion designs. The @wallacemuseum was the setting, the mid-to-late 1990s work of Vivienne Westwood and the emerging, NewGen London artists of today – including @dilarafindikoglu, @_charlesjeffrey, @yuhanwangyuhan, etc. – were the players.
So when I saw that The Wallace Collection were holding an exhibition this summer that placed legendary shoe designer Manolo Blahník’s (@manoloblahnikhq) works from his private archives, against some of the collection’s most priced masterpieces, I was enthralled. It felt like a real life working out of an assignment I had poured over (though of course the stimuli are wholly different, and a lot pointier), and it made me smile to consider how ideas that we grab at and strive to thoughtfully construct in our seminars, assessments and lunch time debates; could truly find a realised place in contemporary, fashion historical spaces.
I pinched this image from a personal (professional) hero of mine – Naomi Smart (@naomismartuk), British Vogue’s Shopping Editor – from when she visited the exhibition’s opening. The miniature circled is (funnily enough) an artwork that also featured in my Virtual Exhibition – great minds and all that 😉 …
 Caroline Evans, ‘history’ in Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, modernity and deathliness (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003), p.22
For me the last 9 months have been a whirlwind of learning, growing and delving ever deeper into the world of historical fashion. Throughout the year, I attempted to model my personal style on what my research revealed as a typical ‘college girl wardrobe’ of the 1940s. By dressing the part, I felt like I was not only embodying the idealized student but also connecting to the individual items, designers and dressed individuals I studied and wrote about.
This outfit serves as an excellent example of 1940s college girl attire and symbolises how, throughout the course, the entirety of my life was focused on the pursuit of knowledge. The variety of textures within the outfit —the crisp cotton dress, the scratchy wool jumper, the soft cashmere beret and the worn leather of the shoes— replicate the myriad concepts and approaches to fashion and dress history that the Documenting Fashion unveiled.
The calm earth tones of this ensemble are misleading however, as the year was vibrant, like a textile woven from multicolored threads of knowledge.