Author Archives: L England

The Year Distilled


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.



Azzedine Alaïa ensemble, Winter 1986, ‘Adrian and Alaïa: The Art of Tailoring,’ Association Azzedine Alaïa, Paris, photograph taken by the author.

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 …



Alice Moll of Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, ca. early-1920s, postcard, National Football Musuem Archive, Preston (Photo: National Football Museum).

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!



Costume worn by Emma Stone in The Favourite, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, costume designer, Sandy Powell. Photo, authors’ own, taken at Hatfield House.

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’ [1]. 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 😉 …

[1] 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.

Fashioning the Dangerous Woman in ‘Killing Eve’

Villanelle wearing a Molly Goddard dress. Costume design by Phoebe de Gaye. BBC America/Sid Gentle Films, 2018.

Killing Eve’s female-led approach to the spy thriller reverses a number of gender stereotypes. However, reversing a stereotype is not always the same as challenging it, and one which the series struggles to challenge is the trope of the dangerously fashionable woman.

In Killing Eve, this woman takes the form of sharply dressed assassin, Villanelle. Her passion for her work is matched only by her passion for designer clothes, and she stalks the streets of Europe in an array of the latest fashions. A hit in Tuscany requires a lace-trimmed Burberry dress, for example, while one in Bulgaria calls for a satin Miu Miu bomber jacket. In Berlin, she dons a frilly JW Anderson top to hide in plain sight as she spies on MI5 agents, before changing into a brocade Dries van Noten suit to stab one of them. Then, of course, there is the striking Molly Goddard dress and Balenciaga boots ensemble that she wears to visit her psychiatrist in Paris. Villanelle’s fashionable clothes are both her tactical wear and markers of her confident, fearless character.

Crucially, Villanelle’s fashionable appearance also contrasts her with Eve, the unassuming MI5 agent tasked with hunting her down. Eve favours ill-fitting suits and anoraks, and is so decidedly unfashionable that Villanelle feels compelled to send her a selection of designer clothes. Eve cannot let herself enjoy them, though, for they represent all that she feels she is not. Over the course of the series, her unfashionable appearance thus becomes associated with a certain rationality and self-control, thereby distancing her from Villanelle both visually and characteristically. As such, Villanelle’s fashion sense might appear confident and fearless in and of itself, but it can also be read as unruly and ostentatious when contrasted with Eve’s appearance.

Eve. Costume design by Phoebe de Gaye. BBC America/Sid Gentle Films, 2018.

In some respects, it is exciting to see a woman as fashionable as Villanelle on screen. Fashion and costume are so often viewed as mutually exclusive, but Villanelle’s costumes show how fashion can be utilised in costume design without appearing distracting. Furthermore, it is unusual for a female character to embrace fashion without fear of being perceived as frivolous or overly feminine, and to completely own her appearance. In turn, Villanelle’s costumes are refreshing because they allow both her and the viewer to unashamedly indulge in fashion.

However, this also makes it all the more frustrating that Killing Eve then associates Villanelle’s fashionable appearance with wrongdoing, for the trope of the dangerously fashionable woman is as old as the moving image itself. More often than not, the fashionable woman is also confident and assertive, independent and liberated, and her fashion sense, as a visible manifestation of modernity and change, comes to symbolise these characteristics. There is a reason that the vamp always wears a short dress and bobbed hair, and that the femme fatale has a fondness for shoulder pads and red lipstick; her fashion sense others her, often prefiguring her downfall.

Villanelle’s fate may not yet be known, but positioning her as the dangerously fashionable woman nonetheless renders her character as dated as it is enjoyable. Might the characterisation of Killing Eve’s leads feel different, perhaps, if Eve were the fashionable one?

Soft? Tactile Dialogues : MoMu and the Maurice Verbaet Center, Antwerp

In the Maurice Verbaet Center in Antwerp there currently hangs Sven’t Jolle’s ‘Yves Saint-Lazare’ (2014): a large piece of brown cloth draped over a metal clothes hanger. It could be a shift dress, but it is tattered and dirty, and there are three large holes ripped in the fabric. It is actually an old rag from the artist’s studio, repurposed for display as an art object itself and originally created for exhibition in a Parisian gallery, located on the Rue du Grenier-Saint-Lazare, during fashion week. Textile art takes on the guise of fashion and fashion, sculpture and textiles come together in a piece that comments on art as a luxury good. 

Sven’t Jolle’s ‘Yves Saint-Lazare’ (2014). Photo by author.

Jolle’s work appears as part of Soft? Tactile Dialogues, the first exhibition by Antwerp’s ModeMuseum to shift its focus from fashion to textile art. The show is inspired by a collection of textile works by Belgian artists that had, until now, remained hidden in the museum’s archives. To celebrate the work of their creators, curator and Courtauld alumna Elisa de Wyngaert has sought to unearth these pieces and give them the attention that they certainly deserve.

Photo by author.

The first half of the show contains a selection of these archival pieces, produced by female artists from the ‘Textielgroep’ movement in the 1960s and 1970s. A number of large-scale works dominate, including Tapta’s twisted woven lengths and Liberta Ferket’s ‘Treurend vangnet’, its long knots of plaited rope falling heavily from the ceiling. Behind these hangs Veerle Dupoint’s ‘Alruin’, its earthy tones matched by the extraordinary musty odour that emanates from it. Historically associated with female artists, textile was embraced by these women to explore and advance the creative potential of the medium. These works are not delicate or pretty. Their appeal comes from their strength, their weighty materiality, rough textures, nubby woven surfaces, and frayed tufts. It is their tactility that seduces.

Veerle Dupoint’s ‘Alruin’ (1976). Photo by author.

The second half of the show takes place in the adjacent stairwell and is dedicated to works by contemporary female and male Belgian artists. This unusual space is used to its advantage by de Wyngaert in an exploration of the various ways in which textile art has developed. Works include Klaas Rommelaere’s tapestries, made in collaboration with a group of local ‘grandmothers’ and Wiesi Will’s colourful installation of fine knit hangings. These artists embrace vibrant colours and a range of different media, from fabric to plastic and glass.

Klaas Rommelaere’s ‘Future’ (2018). Photo by author.

In both halves of the exhibition, the works come into their own when they interact with one another. When you stand at the entrance of the first room and catch a glimpse of the coarse surface of Dupoint’s work through the gaps in Tapta’s sculptural forms, the tactile qualities of the different materials and techniques communicate across the space. Similarly, the staircase provides a unique location in which the works frame and refract off one another, inviting the viewer to engage with the exciting possibilities offered by textile art.

Photo by author.

If anyone needed persuading that a fashion museum should widen its scope to include textile art, this exhibition provides more than enough reason. It is notable that a number of the contemporary artists that are included have worked in or studied fashion.  Christoph Hefti studied at Central Saint Martins and was a print developer at Dries Van Noten, Klaas Rommelaere interned at Henrik Vibsov and Raf Simons, and Laure Van Brempt and Vera Roggli, of Weisi Will, worked as designers at Christian Wijnants. Both fashion and textile art activate and explore the expressive capacity of fabric and, as the work of these artists demonstrates, there is much to be gained from recognising the dynamic that exists between the two.

Photo by author.

Catch the exhibition from 28-09-18 to 24-02-19 at the Maurice Verbaet Center in Antwerp. There are also a number of associated events taking place around the city. Visit for more information.

The Virtue of Spectacle and Fantasy in Fashion Exhibitions: Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs

One of the consequences of studying fashion history is that I can no longer go to exhibitions and simply enjoy them in the straightforward way that I used to. The analytical, critical habit takes over and before I know it I’m unpicking everything I see before me. It is hard to remember that sometimes it can be good to just let oneself be carried away by the sheer joyful extravagance of it all.

The iconic Bar Suit, 1947

2017 marks 70 years since the founding of Dior, and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris is celebrating the anniversary with Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams. An expansive exhibition, it charts the history of the illustrious couture house. It’s a smorgasbord of luxury and dazzle, and a reminder of fashion’s power to create seductive spectacle.

No exhibition is perfect and this one has its flaws. The broad brush concept and comprehensive scope could have benefited from some streamlining, and a modified layout of the themed rooms might have constructed a stronger narrative. However, the exhibition’s virtue lies in the breathtaking drama in which Dior’s exquisite creations are displayed. It’s an exhibition that doesn’t seek so much to tell a story as to bombard the visitor with spectacular sight upon spectacular sight.

There’s a room dedicated to dresses inspired by the 18th century, the displays evoking the interiors of Versailles. Further on, paper blooms and trails of paper ivy carpet the ceiling, lit by soft pastel lights. Somehow, it doesn’t seem to matter that the room simply illustrates the frequency with which flowers feature in Dior’s designs. The pure pleasure in seeing the exquisite craftsmanship of the dresses in such splendid settings replaces the need for lengthy museum-speak explanations.

Some rooms have music playing in the background, or screens showing film clips and interactive touch panels that reveal images and quotes. Three iconic photographs of three iconic Dior dresses are printed on a glass wall. The lighting changes and the photographs disappear, revealing the original dresses behind. Far from overshadowing the clothes, the spectacular displays only enhance the experience of the exquisitely crafted garments.

After a while the visitor begins to feel dizzy with the drama, as the theatricality is amplified until the final room where the exhibition culminates in an explosion of hypnotic, unadulterated spectacle.  Gold glitter cascades from the ceiling and walls, which shimmer and morph into an Italianate fresco, before changing again into the façade of 30 Avenue Montaigne. Fantasy truly takes over in this room where sequinned dresses sparkle and glint under the shifting lights.

Emerging from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs onto the Rue du Rivoli one has that dazed feeling of having been woken slightly too early from the most fantastic reverie. If Christian Dior ‘Designed Dreams’, then this exhibition takes those dreams and works them into the display itself, creating a fashion fantasy-world.

Visit Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs until 7 January 2018.


Leah Gouget-Levy

Alumni Interview: Katerina Pantelides and Alexis Romano – Part 2

On a rainy day in The Courtauld student café, Alexis Romano and Katerina Pantelidesboth of whom have recently completed their PhDs in dress history at The Courtauldgenerously agreed to tell me a bit about their work. Due to the length of the interview the first half was posted last Friday, it continues here: 

Katerina (L) & Alexis (R) presenting in class during their MA at The Courtauld
Alexis and Katerina presenting at a Courtauld conference together. 

Do you have any advice for people who might be thinking of doing a PhD? 

Alexis: I would say be as organised as you can and treat it as a nine-to-five job. I think if you professionalise it you will be more productive. 

Katerina: I would say that it’s really difficult to write and research things if you’re worried about money, so try and get that sorted. It’s a really practical thing but it helps so much with treating it like a job. I would also say make sure you have a topic that you are really passionate about. Be open minded. Make sure you have the supervision and support that you need, for example if you have a topic that bridges disciplines, try and get supervision from both

You’re both co-founders of the Fashion Research Network. Can you tell me a bit more about it?

Katerina: We are both co-founders with Nathaniel Beard and Ellen Sampson, who are from the Royal College of Art. It started off because we felt that there were lots of institutions in London with students who were doing research in fashion and dress but they all seemed like these separate little fiefdoms, and we thought why don’t we try and get them together, put on an event, and get people talking to each other. It started with a pilot event in summer 2013 and it was a really big success. Since then we have done quite a few events: museum tours, artists and designer talks, symposia and reading groups. We have had some interesting people involved and it’s been pretty interdisciplinary. 

Alexis: Yes, the interdisciplinary aspect is a central part of our mission, because the other co-founders are not historians; they work on fashion but they come from different fields. One of the obstacles for us in our own research was coming to terms with the fact that fashion is not just history and its not just image, its an industry, it involves so many different types of people, languages and disciplines – things that, as art historians, we might not understand without having conversations with people from other fields. Through the FRN, we wanted to get as broad a definition of fashion as possible to work with! 

What are your plans for the future now that you have both finished your PhDs?

Katerina: I’m writing my first novel, teaching English and am in the first stages of planning a small exhibition about fashion and the senses with Alexis.
Alexis: I am hoping to put together a proposal for a manuscript and some exhibitions, and a course from my research. So that’s the current project, but I am also looking for funding to make that happen. I am currently Exhibition Reviews Editor for Textile History Journal, am also starting a project making greetings cards, and of course, we are in the very early stages of curating an exhibition together about fashion and the senses. So stay tuned for more!

Alexis' research, Elle magazine, 1968.
Alexis’ research, Elle magazine, 1968.
A peek at Alexis' current projects: Elle, a greetings card prototype and Textile History journal.
A peek at Alexis’ current projects: Elle, a greetings card prototype and Textile History journal.

Alumni Interview: Katerina Pantelides and Alexis Romano – Part 1

On a rainy day in The Courtauld student café, Alexis Romano and Katerina Pantelides, both of whom have recently completed their PhDs in dress history at The Courtauld, generously agreed to tell me a bit about their work. Due to the length of the interview the second half will be posted next Tuesday.

What made you both decide to do a PhD in dress history at the Courtauld?

Alexis: I was living in New York, studying design history with a focus on fashion and textiles. When I finished the degree I didn’t have a concrete plan, but I was still writing and researching so it just seemed like the next logical step. My research, which is based on national fashion and post-war dress, really connected with Rebecca Arnold’s work, which I always admired. So it seemed like a good fit!

Katerina: I did an MA at The Courtauld, and it was interesting because during the time of my MA I always thought that I wanted to be a curator. I was always really interested in theatre and dress and performance, and so I did an internship at the V&A at the Theatre and Performance archive. It was a round the time of the big [Sergei] Diaghilev exhibition and I remember there was all this stuff about émigrés and Russian ballet. I was so interested in all the stories. At that time, I thought I wanted to do a book on Russian émigrés and the ballet in connection with dress and costume, but then I applied for the PhD and I got it and I got the funding, so I worked on that for three years. I ended up working with Rebecca because I met her on the MA and I really liked her and her approach.

What were the topics of your theses?

Alexis: I wrote about the French ready-to-wear industry and its development between 1945 and the late 1960s. I explored this in relation to what was happening in terms of various aspects of the post-war reconstruction of the country and women’s history, and the shift in constructions of fashion, modernity and the representation of women. I looked at how women connected to wider cultural issues through their experience of [ready-made] fashion.

Katerina: My title was ‘Russian Émigré Ballet and the Body: Paris and New York c.1920-50’. I looked at how Russians who emigrated after the Russian revolution in 1917 brought over their dance practice and how they influenced body, dress and exercise culture in the west. I also looked at how dress and exercise culture in the west, specifically in New York, influenced the Russian émigrés. So it was this two-way relationship that I examined.

I am always really interested in how research develops. People start off with having one thing in mind, and then they work on it and it sort of transforms into something completely different. Did you find that your research developed over the course of your study? And if so how?

Alexis: I think research is a personal thing, and connects to who you are. My research evolved a lot, for instance, I ended up studying an earlier period than when I started out. But on a more personal level I became much more interested in women’s personal, everyday experience of dress, focusing on women in their 30s. I turned 30 over the course of my research, and that apparently was a defining moment that I came to terms with through exploring women of a similar age, and their hurdles, in history.

Katerina: That’s so interesting because I do think that you grow up with your PhD in some ways. I started out being very young and idealistic, interested in the ethereal aspects of the ballet and the whole idea of Russian Émigré ballet as a ghostly nation that travels, and then as I got further into the research and started to look at things in archives, I became more interested in the dusty, dirty things. I became much more interested in the realities of travel and what people took with them, what they archived, what they lost, how they talked about things they lost. I think I started out being very interested in the illusions that were taking place and then I became much more interested in the women themselves, the gritty realities.

 Alexis: I wonder why we both became interested in the personal rather than looking at things from a scholar’s lens?

Katerina: I think it’s because with fashion images, for example, you always want to know what’s beneath them, and what’s the reality of the people who consume them and things like that. You always look for depth I think.

A look at Katerina’s research; drawing by Edward Degas, c. late 19th century, from the archive of New York City Ballet dancer, Melissa Hayden.
A look at Katerina’s research; drawing by Edward Degas, c. late 19th century, from the archive of New York City Ballet dancer, Melissa Hayden.

Dissertation Discussion: Leah


 My working title is La Mode revee and the New York World Fair, 1939

What prompted you to choose this subject? 

I can’t quite remember how, but somehow in the course of research I stumbled across Marcel L’Herbier’s short film La Mode revee (1939), which was produced to promote Parisian couture at the New York World Fair in 1939.

Not only does the film make for fun viewing (the plot involves figures from Antoine Watteau’s painting, Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717), coming to life, escaping from the Louvre and going shopping in the top Paris couturiers), but its themes chimed directly with my own interests. I plan to explore the film in relation to the 1939 New York World Fair and questions concerning the temporality of fashion. Marcel L’Herbier is a fascinating director and one who deserves much more critical exploration and recognition.

Photo Caption: Still from La Mode revee (1939) by Marcel L’Herbier. Watteau’s painted beauties escape from their frame to go shopping in Paris’ finest couture establishments!
Photo Caption: Still from La Mode revee (1939) by Marcel L’Herbier. Watteau’s painted beauties escape from their frame to go shopping in Paris’ finest couture establishments!

Most inspiring research find so far? 

A few weeks ago I took a short study trip to Paris. In the archives at the Bibliotheque nationale de France I found some of the documents relating to the production of La Mode revee. I haven’t seen them referred to anywhere else and I didn’t unearth them until a couple of days in, so it felt like a very satisfying find! Plus, exploring new libraries is always inspiring.

Favourite place to work? 

I can be found most days in the British Library. They have (nearly!) all the books and you don’t even have to look for them on the shelves. Once you’ve ordered the book you want online the kindly librarians do all the legwork for you, so all you have to do is pick it up from the counter. That’s a win win in my opinion.

MA Study trip day three: an afternoon at the Museum of the City of New York with Phyllis Magidson

To tell the truth, none of us had ever heard of the Museum of the City of New York before it appeared on our study trip schedule. Our curiosity was piqued, however, when over the first few days of our visit the name repeatedly popped up as we talked to other curators and archivists. They would cite the dress collection there, telling us how wonderful it was.

We knew it was going to be good as soon as we walked into the impressive rotunda of the Museum lobby. First stop was down to the basement to see the archives, recently rehoused in a specially built state-of-the-art space. Phyllis Magidson, curator of dress and textiles, introduced us to the collection there. A row of stacks was unrolled to reveal a corridor of all manner of colourful hanging garments. Along the other side of the room was flat-lay shelving for the more delicate pieces. Phyllis showed us designs by American readymade designers Claire McCardell and Vera Maxwell as well as from European designers. She explained though that the majority of the items, especially from the earlier years, tend to be couture or designer – reflecting the tastes of the Museum’s patrons and wealthy donors when it opened in 1923. This was just a glimpse of the more than 25,000 items of dress in the museum collection. The common factor that links them all together, and the reason for their preservation in the Museum, is their connection to New York and the (for the most part) New Yorkers who originally owned and wore them.

The second part of the trip took us back upstairs to one of the Museum’s main exhibition rooms and the location of Dressing Room: Archiving Fashion. Open to the public, for two months a selection of items from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s are being photographed as part of an online digitization project and added to the museum’s online database. After having spent the previous few days looking at more traditional methods of displaying dress (thematic exhibitions consisting of a line-up of mannequins), this set-up was immediately engaging and inspiring. By taking a process that might normally be carried out behind closed doors, and turning it into an exhibition for the public, Dressing Room wasn’t so much about the clothes being photographed, as about the practice of the history of dress itself. At one end of the space was a large white backdrop, in front of which were several photographic lights and a camera, poised to capture the mannequin once dressed. A rack of garments held the line-up of clothes, which were delicately taken down, one by one, for their turn in the spotlight. On one of the walls a video was running of garments being photographed at some earlier point – a speeded-up version of what was happening in reality for impatient viewers. It was an inspiring indication of how thinking outside the box in displaying and curating dress might open up new ways of engaging the public with the discipline of the history of dress.

If you would like to take a look at the digitisation project, this short time-lapse video records Phyllis and her assistant in the process of dressing a mannequin (Link to Vimeo:

Thank-you so much to Phyllis for having us!

A magnificent headpiece by Bill Cunningham for Truman Capote's famous Black and White Ball, 1966
A magnificent headpiece by Bill Cunningham for Truman Capote’s famous Black and White Ball, 1966
A pair of dressed mannequins
A pair of dressed mannequins
A rack of garments waiting to be photographed
A rack of garments waiting to be photographed

Modes Pratiques

Mode pratique: a magazine published in France at around the turn of the twentieth century.

Modes pratiques: a new history of dress journal first published in November 2015.


Modes pratiques. Revue d’histoire du vêtement et de la mode  is the product of collaboration between the Duperré School of design, fashion and creation, and the Institut de Recherches Historiques du Septentrion at Lille 3 University. Taking an interdisciplinary approach to the subject of the history of dress, the journal was conceived, according to the editors Manuel Charpy and Patrice Verdière, with the aim of filling a gap in the often overlooked discipline of the history of dress in France.

‘Norms and Transgressions’ is the theme of the first issue, certainly a very current topic, although perhaps not ground-breaking in itself. However, the journal and its contributors deal with its subject in thought provoking, and often unexpected, ways. Articles (all written in French) include discussions about the relationship between teenagers and fashion, transvestitism and vogueing; but also about the significance of the colour white in female monastic dress and the norms of the nineteenth century worker’s shirt. More standard-format academic articles are joined by interviews, for example concerning the uniforms of people working in the airline business, extracts from nineteenth century magazines and a detailed glossary of terms, rather humorously titled un glossaire partial mais chic, related to the journal’s key themes.

Inside #30001

Perhaps partly because of the art school influence, the creativity of Modes pratiques extends to its visual format. In fact, the editors had initially envisaged printing the journal on degradable paper that would have disappeared, along with its contents, within six months. It is probably a good thing that this wasn’t put into practice, though, as it is certainly something one would want to hang on to. Flicking through, nearly every double page spread bears at least one image. All in black and white, these include photographs, copies of archival documents and specially commissioned illustrations inspired by the text.

Inside #60001

I am looking forward dedicating some serious reading time to the journal and with a second issue already promised, it will be interesting to follow its development.


For further information:–revue-d-histoire-du-vetement-et-de-la-mode-normes-et-transgressions-9791095518006.html.

Gravity Fatigue: Hussein Chalayan’s Foray into Dance


Gravity Fatigue - Image 1

Gravity Fatigue, directed by Hussein Chalayan was at Sadler’s Wells from the 28th-31st October 2015

Enter: three dancers, each wearing a white, pleated, knee-length skirt and a boxy jacket with a high collar pulled up to the nose. In step, they make their way around the stage in a manner that can only be described as hula-like – their hips moving in short jerking motions, sending the skirts swishing from side to side, their legs moving as if independent from their bodies.

Soon, they are joined by another trio wearing long black coats. Slowly, but picking up speed, the dancers begin to spin, three at a time, on the spot; the hulas become whirling dervishes. The jackets are unzipped and left to fall. As they do it transpires that they are attached to the skirts and an underbody, with the inside of the jacket covered in multi-coloured sequins. The jackets whirl around the dancers as they spin, creating a mesmerising, hypnotic effect.

This is Gravity Fatigue at its finest – the title of a new performance created by fashion designer Hussein Chalayan for Sadler’s Wells, London. The designer was commissioned by the contemporary dance company and worked alongside choreographer, Damien Jalet, to produce the 1h 15minute performance that showed over four days from the 28th-31st October 2015. Although this was the first time that Chalayan – known for his inter-disciplinary practice – had directed a dance piece, it was not the first time he had shown his work on Sadler’s stage, having used the venue for his famous 2000 A/W show, Afterwards: a commentary on the horror of displacement in wartime that saw models transforming furniture into clothes.

A page from the official programme showing sketches by Chalayan for each of the short tableaux.
A page from the official programme showing sketches by Chalayan for each of the short tableaux.

Officially the ‘hula-dervishes’ were Body Split, dance number 7 out of 18 tableaux that made up the performance, each undeniably stamped with Chalayan’s – aesthetic and thematic – mark. As one might expect, fabric was a central element of the show, in terms of both costumes and set design. The possibilities or restraints provided by fabric formed the starting point for the dancers’ movements, as Chalayan played on themes such as gender, religion, technology, migration, and the self in modern reality.

Photographs in the official programme of dancers in rehearsal
Photographs in the official programme of dancers in rehearsal

Despite these weighty topics the dances never strayed far from a playful humour. Fabric was made to perform alongside the bodies of the dancers, pushing the boundaries of what might normally be expected from material, in classic Chalayan innovation. One tableau, for example, saw the dancer’s dress itself appear to dance. As she stood rooted to the spot it moved and mutated autonomously, and disconcertingly, around her hips.

The fact that Chalayan was entrusted with the role of director, despite his previous lack of dance experience, is a testament to his abilities to cross disciplines in a meaningful and thought provoking way. Significantly, he refers to the experience of creating the show as ‘one of the most important projects in my development as a designer/artist.’  Certainly, Gravity Fatigue brought together two media in a way that created an exciting and enthralling perspective on fashion, material and its relationship with the body.