Lesley Miller is Senior Curator of Textiles and Fashion at the V&A and Professor of Dress and Textile History at the University of Glasgow. She has led the curatorial team on the reinterpretation of the Europe 1600-1815 Galleries at the V&A over the last five years, and returns to her duties in Textiles and Fashion in 2016. Her current research projects focus on early modern dress and textiles.
Your first degree was in Hispanic Studies at the University of Glasgow, before you went on to pursue the History of Dress for an MA at The Courtauld. What led you to Dress History? How was the transition; did any interesting connections arise between the disciplines?
The sewing skills I learnt as a child provided the route into historical dress studies while seasonal treks around remnant shops and department stores handling materials laid the foundations for my knowledge of textiles. As a student, I spent my summer holidays making costumes for either theatrical performances or museum displays under the guidance of my mother. Penny Byrde’s book The Male Image alerted us to the existence of the Courtauld course. I was not optimistic that I had the qualifications – no history or art history at undergraduate level. But, I did have more than two modern European languages, and they have proved invaluable throughout my career. Initially, at the Courtauld, having come from a language and literature background without an image or an object in sight, my visual memory was extremely poor. A daily diet of dozens of slides at the Courtauld, a weekly diet of visiting art galleries and the Witt Library’s rich photograph collection soon had its impact – and I am still grateful for that exhilarating training.
What was the History of Dress course like when you studied at The Courtauld?
The History of Dress course was still a two-year programme in 1980 under Aileen Ribeiro’s stewardship: the first year was a survey from the classical world to the present day; the second comprised a special subject – in our case, ‘Dress in England and France, 1740-1790’ – and a 10,000-word dissertation on a subject of our choice – in my case, on men’s dress in Golden Age Spain. The 18th-century course provided my entrée into a PhD on 18th-century French silk manufacturing, while my dissertation put dress into the Golden Age drama I had studied at undergraduate level before I had any inkling of what the plays might have looked like on stage. That research also allowed me to understand the paintings and sculpture I had seen in art gallery, church and street in Castile during the time I had lived there, and the impact they might have had on contemporaries. At the end, I knew that I wanted to pursue research to PhD; that I didn’t want to work in a museum; and that teaching was how to share my newfound passion.
How did your time at The Courtauld make an impact upon you? Can you tell us about your PhD at Brighton University?
The Courtauld Institute and Brighton University were poles apart, the former a small, specialized monotechnic with an exclusive focus on art history (and conservation), quite precious in many ways and isolated from the wider University of London geographically and socially (those were its days at Portman Square). The latter was a polytechnic in which the Art and Design Faculty was developing what became an influential BA in Design History that encouraged the study of and debate around designed objects of all sorts, not just those of top quality for the highest level of society. Indeed, the study of elite art and luxury was at that time rather frowned upon, and study of the silk industry not obviously a happy fit with the more democratic principles of the institution. I was fortunate, however, to have Lou Taylor as my champion and supervisor, she having proposed the project on the basis that British designers and manufacturers from the 18th century onwards always bewailed the excellence of French design over their own. Their assumptions on why this was the case needed investigation. The Research Assistant’s post that I occupied for four years required a small amount of teaching – lectures for first year fashion textile students and the supervision of a few third year dissertations. These duties punctuated periods of research in France. Never having set foot in an art school in my life, I was not best equipped to understand the needs of these students – but was fortunate to have a mentor in Lou who alerted me to the desirability of thinking about my audience and how to engage it. Courtauld-style content and presentation were not going to do the trick!
You taught the History of Design for over 20 years – how did the field change over this time?
As you say, I did teach Design History for many years, and still do, though now only through my own particular specialism (textiles, dress and museology). Indeed, I was lucky to teach not only studio-based design students, but also Design History and Humanities undergraduates, Textiles and Dress History post-graduates (I went to Winchester in 1991 to help Barbara Burman set up an MA in Textile and Dress History, which continues in a slightly different form today in Glasgow under the able stewardship of Sally Tuckett) and Textile Conservation students. When I started out, the secondary literature was very limited, so we often had to work from primary sources – and thus my awareness of object-centred study evolved. Today, there is not only a good range of reliable texts introducing the field, but multiple theoretical approaches to the subject. Earlier historical periods have gradually assumed their place in the literature (in the early days Design History was almost exclusively 19th and 20th-century in focus) and luxury production is no longer denied. The ‘material turn’ in mainstream history is also informing the field, and now, ‘Material Culture History’ provides a more inclusive term for describing what all art and design historians do, alongside archaeologists, anthropologists, and some historians, all with slightly different inflections.
You’ve produced a lot of fascinating work on the 17th and 18th centuries, with an emphasis on silk – how did your research interests develop?
My interest in the early modern period developed through my MA special subject and dissertation, and then led directly into my PhD – and I have never let go. My initial interest in designers in the Lyon silk industry has gradually broadened into an investigation of other trades in manufacturing, notably that of manufacturer and that of salesman. Of course, my greatest pleasure is burrowing into archives to find the elusive documents I haven’t yet read – or to explore in more depth the manufacturers who emerge from my work on V&A objects. A classic example is my recent introduction to a facsimile of a merchant’s sample book of 1764, kept in the V&A collections. The identification of manufacturers’ initials in this book has given me the perfect excuse to frequent that great French gastronomic centre again – and appreciate how archive-management has evolved. Thirty years ago, I couldn’t quite believe that anyone would stick with the same subject for a life-time. Now, I understand the addiction – and, of course, now, it is much easier to travel and do research efficiently in short bursts, armed with laptop and digital camera instead of simply pencil and paper. Nonetheless, a prolonged period of time getting to know the place of production or consumption, as well as its archives, is invaluable. Silk is a very seductive fabric on which to focus, but, at the end of the day, it is the people who designed, made and wore silk that fascinate me.
You wrote a wonderful monograph on the Spanish fashion designer, Cristóbal Balenciaga. What led you to focus on Balenciaga? What do you think of the house today?
Ironically, my monograph – not wonderful, but certainly one of the first serious attempts at an analytical approach to understanding a fashion designer’s reputation through his work and context – was the result of failure. Thanks to Aileen’s recommendation, as I was finishing my PhD, Batsford commissioned me to write a book on dress in Golden Age Spain, one of a series on Dress and Civilisation. Unfortunately, the first two books in the series did not sell as well as anticipated, and since I was lagging behind (PhD dissertations never take as little time to write as one imagines), my contract was cancelled. Within a month, however, Batsford decided to launch its Fashion Designer series, asking me whether I might like to take on Balenciaga. I had French and Spanish and some knowledge of the corresponding cultures and their art, and had much appreciated the pioneering Balenciaga exhibition at the Musée des Tissus in Lyon in the first year of my PhD, which underlined the designer’s debt to textiles. Understanding of historical dress was fundamental in the case of a designer whose oeuvre owes a great debt to dress from 17th – 19th centuries. I accepted with alacrity, on the pragmatic basis that I needed to develop understanding of 20th-century fashion and textiles, if I were to teach in an art school. It is salutary to realise that in 1993, when the first edition of my book was published, there was only one other monograph on Balenciaga and little substantial on couture history. Now, one trips over such literature astoundingly frequently – and the number of student dissertations on Balenciaga is legion. As I prepare the third edition, to coincide with the V&A exhibition on Balenciaga’s Craft to open in 2017, I look forward to reflecting on the expansion in ‘Balenciaga Studies’ and to exploring with new eyes – mine and the exhibition’s curator Cassie Davies-Strodder – the expanded riches of the V&A collections. This is an exciting time for the House, as a new designer has just been appointed. Will he have the impact that Nicolas Ghesquière had in reviving its fortunes in the 1990s? Will we know by May 2017?
How have your academic studies contributed to or shaped your professional activities? What does your role at the V&A involve? What is your favourite aspect of it?
My academic studies are at the heart of all I have done and all I do in my professional life, and probably all I will do when I retire. They gave me the incentive to explore in detail objects and images in museums and documents in archives and libraries, and to be rigorous in analyzing them to formulate an argument or story. Fortunately, over the years, a great variety of different approaches to my subject have come from the tutelage of or discussion with inspiring colleagues, and I have been obliged to go through periods of being a generalist as well as a specialist, though I am a specialist by nature. My current role as Lead Curator of the Europe 1600-1815 Galleries refurbishment has been salutary in this respect, reminding me that dress and textiles do not exist in isolation, demanding that I think about them holistically and justify why I think it’s important to include them in these galleries. What I have enjoyed most about this five-year project is the teamwork collaborating with colleagues across the Museum, all with different specialisms, ideas and skills, all thinking about how we communicate with different audiences. At this stage in my career, both as Senior Curator for Textiles and Fashion at the V&A and Professor of Dress and Textiles Histories at Glasgow University, it is my pleasant responsibility to facilitate the development of the next generation of textile and dress specialists, whether through sharing subject expertise or advising on professional practice.
Could you share with us some of your goals for the future?
As you probably know, working in a museum means that institutional priorities dictate to a large extent what one’s goals are, and they can change from one year to the next. For me, a third edition of Balenciaga, this time with a focus on the V&A collections will be a short-term goal, once the Europe galleries open on 9 December. It is very exciting to imagine how beautiful this book will look in comparison with the first edition – and how much more accurate the V&A catalogue will become. I will also return to my role as one of the three specialists in the early modern period in textiles and dress, caring for the collections and ensuring both physical and intellectual access to them.
Then, of course, there are other projects that will come to fruition in the longer term, informed by my past research and executed largely in my own time: the annotated translation with my Courtauld friend, art historian Katie Scott, of a translation of the first manual of silk design published in Paris in 1765. Do look out for the small exhibition of 18th-century textiles from the Courtauld’s very own Harris collection next Spring outside the library, and the conference Fabrications that we are running on 5th March in the Research Forum. Then there is the completion of a monograph on 18th-century Lyonnais silk designer-manufacturers, and of a collaborative book project on European silks during the period of French dominance between 1660 and 1815. And, finally, in retirement, I hope to be back on the road to Spain and Portugal to continue my slightly strange academic perambulations.
Finally, do you have any advice for budding dress historians who aspire to have a career similar to yours?
Budding dress historians have to be persistent, prepared to take risks and grab opportunities, some of which may not seem terribly enticing at the time, either because of where they are or what they are. Just remember that menial and repetitive tasks often prepare you in a way that is not immediately obvious for intellectual as well as practical goals. Developing a reputation for working collaboratively and courteously is crucial.
As our subject is young and enticing to a variety of audiences, avoiding academic snobbery is a very good idea, whilst maintaining meticulous attention to detail in all you do. Aileen Ribeiro’s greatest advice to me was to learn to write at a variety of levels, in other words for different audiences – a stricture I probably didn’t appreciate at the time, but do now. I would add to that advice, that keeping on writing, even when you don’t actually have to prepare material to submit for deadlines, is important. And, of course, for ‘writing’, you could substitute ‘speaking’.
I have been lucky to have two careers, the first in teaching and the second in a national museum. I would not have been suited to the latter at the time I took up the former, so I would advocate open-mindedness as to what the future might hold. Don’t feel you have to do the same forever – even if you do want to retain your specialism, and do look beyond both museums and academia for opportunities. My main mantra may be contentious, but here it is: you can’t do dress without textiles satisfactorily, nor contemporary fashion without a background in historical styles and practices.
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.
Natalia is a fellow 2012 alumna of The Courtauld History of Dress MA. Originally from Los Angeles, California, Natalia has lived in London for over five years. Since graduating from The Courtauld, she has worked in online marketing for luxury beauty brands such as Estée Lauder, and is now a Digital Marketing Manager at Music Sales, in addition to running a successful fashion blog, Natalia Ambrosia (link below).
You took your undergraduate degree at The University of California, Santa Barbara. What was it like?
Going to University in Santa Barbara was like being on holiday, it was very surreal. The University is directly on the coast and I could wake up go for a run, and even take my reading to the beach.
What were the best parts of the History of Dress MA for you when we took it in 2011-2012?
I really enjoyed visiting the archives of the Museum of London and analysing pieces of clothing. Going to New York on the group trip was also very cool. Dr. Arnold set up everything from private visits to the FIT to the most incredible vintage store in Brooklyn: everything we’d been reading about came to life.
Did you notice differences between your study experiences in the USA and the UK?
The British University system trains you to be a lot more independent. In the US, you have at least 2-4 hours of lectures/discussion per day and have weekly assignments, whereas in the UK, apart from assigned readings, you have 3-4 assignments for the whole semester. It was definitely an adjustment at first, but it really gave me an opportunity to explore and evolve themes that I had been working on.
Can you tell us your favourite place hang out in London?
For coffee there’s no place like the ‘villagey’ feel of Hampstead. To get inspired, I like to people watch on Oxford Street (not far from The Courtauld): it’s like the pulse of London; you get a feel for what people are actually wearing.
You run an amazing blog, Natalia Ambrosia, and it’s given you some great opportunities, like attending London Fashion Week. What’s the experience like for you?
In many ways, my blog was the catalyst for deciding to pursue an MA in Dress History at The Courtauld. I had moved to Paris to teach English and was interning for a small menswear designer because I thought I wanted to design clothes. I started the blog as an outlet for everything I saw and wanted and became obsessed with fashion blogs. I quickly realised that I wasn’t suited to design but was very much interested in the relationship society has with fashion, and therefore the Courtauld programme was perfect.
You’ve had an exciting career in beauty and marketing since leaving The Courtauld. What are you up to at the moment, and how did the course help you?
During the course I had the opportunity to explore the evolution of the fashion industry since the introduction of the ‘fashion blogger.’ For my research, I spent countless hours at the V&A going through the Vogue archives, reading articles and looking through advertisements. I knew when I started the course that I didn’t want to continue on to a PHD, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted or could do with my experience and interests. During the course, I realised that I really enjoyed dissecting the psychology of the customer and Digital Marketing seemed like a natural choice, as it marries my need to be creative and analytical with the fashion industry. Since the course, I’ve worked in the beauty/fashion industry, and I currently work for a music company, where I’m working on a rebranding project. The Courtauld History of Dress MA really helped me to develop my analytical skills and led me to my career, and now, to use marketing speak, it’s my USP (unique selling point).
Do you have any tips for History of Dress students?
Go to as many exhibitions and museums as you can while in you’re in London. Make the course yours: explore all of the details that capture your interest; you never know where it might lead! Go out there and interview everyone; make use of your stance as a student, and reach out to industry leaders – network!
What are you excited about in fashion this season?
Chloé. Everything Chloé.
Etoffes et Tapis Etrangers, by M.P.-Verneuil, was published in 1925 by Albert Levy, as part of the documentation and celebration of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes – the World’s Fair held in Paris, from April until October, 1925. Dedicated to the display of decorative arts, the international exhibition attracted over sixteen million visitors. Essentially, the book is a collection of seventy-five richly printed plates of decorative textiles, which Verneuil selected from the abundant examples displayed at the exhibition. Examples from Austria, Belgium, England, Italy, Japan, Holland, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, (then) Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union are represented. Notably, France is missing: Verneuil described this as a deliberate decision, designed to eliminate bias, and to provide convenient access to an extensive international range, which could be appreciated and studied.
The book begins with a five-page introduction, in which Verneuil provides unrestrained commentary of the works included, and the countries from which they originated. This includes relevant snippets of history, such as the Austrian government initiative of 1899 to promote textile arts and teaching, which, he notes worked to great effect. He includes artistic criticism of the designs, and describes the English examples, for instance, to be ‘often perfect’, despite what he describes as the diminishment of the arts and crafts movement after the death of artists such as William Morris. After a brief but detailed contents table, the full page designs unfurl, taking the viewer on an international journey in which a thorough range of colours, techniques and styles can be studied in detail.
The International Exhibition was often shortened to Art Deco, which in time came to describe the style(s) displayed. This loose grouping included examples of modernism, cubism, futurism, and exoticism. A requirement for participation in this world’s fair was for the works included to be strictly modern, and not dependent on merely copying historic styles. Indeed, in Verneuil’s introduction, he emphasised that ‘simple lines seem necessary now,’ and the ‘more or less geometrical’ designs selected ‘agree perfectly with current architecture and furniture.’
It seems that Verneuil is according with the overall rationale behind the exhibition: to showcase the supremacy of luxury goods after the First World War. Textiles are positioned as an important expression of the zeitgeist, and those illustrated reflect contemporary, fashionable preferences. However, even within Verneuil’s chosen selection, a number of textiles rely heavily on tradition, such those that depict figurative designs of workers performing crafts. Highlighting modernity had the important, idealist function of signaling progress, distance and advancement away from the harrowing war years. Bright colours suggested a break from the muted tones of the earlier twentieth century, and even the more traditional designs shown could be produced by modern processes.
While the book does not specifically mention dress itself, the development of textiles has clear impact upon possibilities and taste in fashion, and many of the designs presented could be used in this application, both then and now. Despite the strictly ornamental nature of the designs, Verneuil successfully shows their creative and cultural importance. They, along with other related and interlinked aspects of the applied arts, such as fashion and architecture, are reflective and demonstrative of changing technology and aesthetics at this time.
The Museum of Vancouver’s current From Rationing to Fashioning exhibition thoroughly and exhilaratingly takes its viewers through a turbulent interval of history. The glitter and roar of the 1920s had come to a sudden and catastrophic cease, with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and subsequent economic depression. Beforehand, women ‘s newfound freedom and fun was reflected in looser fits and higher hemlines. However, after the crash, the sartorial mood turned towards sentimentality, and the traditional feminine figure began to re-emerge. Women’s dress of the 1930s delicately navigated changing ideals, later taking on designers’ nods to masculinity and the need for practicality during the Second World War. Peacetime instated the womanly silhouette once more: elaborate amounts of fabric countered wartime shortages, and sloping shoulders, full busts, cinched waists and full, long skirts glorified the female form and took it to new heights.
Guest curators Ivan Sayers and Claus Jahnke display the complexities of these changes with thought and flair. On show until March 2015, the exhibition highlights the intrinsic connections between fashion, those that wear it, and the society that surrounds them. The underlying driving force behind the curatorial rationale is clear: fashion reflects, responds to, and helps to drive change. The exhibition expresses the way clothes had to be adapted according to changing conditions, availabilities, and moods, but also how they affected and constructed views of the women who wore them, from the diligent wartime worker to the immaculate housewife.
The exhibition is neatly divided into two main spaces. The first pulls visitors into a comprehensive overview of 1940s fashion. It slickly demonstrates transitions, whilst maintaining the range of styles available within them. Rainbows of both day- and evening-wear reveal fashion’s determination to thrive even during wartime, whilst also making clear the practical and aesthetic limitations imposed. The dual role of the idealised woman’s wartime appearance is revealed: soothing society involved a juggling act between putting her best face, and dress, forward, and cleverly working around restrictions such as rationing, all the while emanating a sense of pragmatism and tactful restraint. A 1943 blouse by London designer Anita Bodley, for example, demonstrates simultaneous practicality and frivolity. Its comfortable fit and short sleeves allowed movement, and a high, Peter Pan-collared neckline maintained modesty, while its silk fabric and assorted bright colours were enlivening. Most poignant of all are the spirited written messages that make up its pattern. Inspired by propaganda posters upon a brick wall, it includes phrases such as ‘-Go! –to! –it!’: one example of several wartime pieces that were especially designed to boost morale and brighten wardrobes.
The second main space leads the viewer to the eventual exultance of the post-war years, but not before an enchanting and specialized interlude: a select display of specifically Canadian clothing. For example, a pair of Boeing Vancouver overalls, displayed with its cuffs turned back to reveal red underneath, and the mannequin’s hand jauntily placed on its hip, exemplify both women’s active agency, and the modernist style and nationalist pride through which it was executed. Indeed, throughout the show, there is an equal emphasis on both internationality and the Museum’s own heritage in Vancouver, with objects originating from almost all of the powers involved in the conflict. In this spirit, an inter-disciplinary approach was taken: German ration books, Elsa Schiaparelli’s signature scrawled on a fashion student’s notepad, a bottle of Chanel perfume and ‘Victory Red’ Elizabeth Arden cosmetics imbue the exhibition with an enriching sensory dimension, which underlies and unifies fashion’s all encompassing interconnectedness.
Just a step away, the final room is a visual delight. Pigmented pinks and reds mingle with elegant whites and dramatic blacks, converging into intricate party concoctions. With the war effort over, and a return to notional normalcy allowed indulgence and amusement and girlishness was prized. This revival, explosion and celebration of full-skirted femininity reached its peak during the 1950s, and culminates the exhibition on an appropriately triumphant note.
During the summer of 2014, the Barbican staged its Digital Revolution – an exhibition that celebrated technology. From the humble home computer of the 1970s, to innovative special effects and interactive artworks of the present and future, it highlighted the way technology has come to immerse itself within, and drive, almost every aspect of daily life. Fashion is by no means immune to this convergence, and the show duly acknowledged this, by featuring garments by Studio XO for TechHaus, the technical division of Lady Gaga’s Haus of Gaga, and wearable technology by Pauline van Dongen. The examples on display went beyond wearable gadgets that are solely functional, such as sporting devices, and instead demonstrated how technology can be fused seamlessly with sartorial ensembles, breaking any boxy, plastic stereotypes and looking unmistakably like couture.
One dress from Pauline van Dongen’s Wearable Solar collection was especially striking. Smooth, cool leather moulds itself over the torso, joined by a simple, black, wool skirt that sits just above the knee. Generous, but form-skimming shapes prevent the look from being overly sexualized, and instead promote a strong, confident style, enhanced by elongated shoulders. One would be forgiven, from a distance, for presuming that the shining stripes made up of small squares that descend from each shoulder serve a decorative purpose only. However, the dress in fact incorporates 72 flexible solar cells, and is capable of fully charging the wearer’s mobile phone with just two hours of full sunlight.
This is just one example of new ways of thinking and working in the fashion industry, which are re-invigorating the existing model that has been in place for decades. The relationship between clothes and their wearers is changing: dress no longer must necessarily be worn passively. Rather, it is capable of responding, communicating, and even assisting. Furthermore, such developments create new links and dialogues between fashion and other areas, such as the energy industries.
Van Dongen asserts that this will help to restore sustainability, both in her work, through the clear environmental benefits of using solar energy, and, on a more general scale, by increasing the longevity of garments, on the basis that incorporated technology will raise their value (actual and perceived) and theoretically decrease their disposability. The implied sense of frugality and practicality maximizes the usefulness of something that is already a constant accompaniment in everyday life: clothing.
However, this infusion of technology into dress is not entirely new. For example, since the late-1980s the Cyber Goth trend has entailed distinctly future orientated and styled dress, incorporating technological elements such as LED circuits. However, it seems that the 2010s mark a new transition point towards usability and ubiquity within this phenomenon. Since the late 2000s, shoppers have been able to use digital representations of themselves to ‘try on’ makeup and fashion looks in a virtual reality environment, for example at Shiseido and Topshop. The launch of the Apple Watch in September 2014, blends design, function, and lifestyle, and Topshop Unique’s use of virtual reality to transport in-branch shoppers to the heart of its Spring/Summer 2014 catwalk show are two other uses of technology within fashion and design. It seems the Barbican’s crowning of a digital renaissance comes on the cusp of technology’s transformation of the ways we experience dress.
Today I spoke to my close friend, John C. Ross, otherwise known as Jean Hollywood. An academic researcher, actor, illustrator, and more, he kindly produced original artwork for Documenting Fashion. Now, he divulges his keys to style, beauty, and knowing thyself…
What are you wearing today?
I’m wearing some lapis high-waisted jeans, with a top from TK Maxx – I’m not sure who made it, but it reminds me of Alexander McQueen. My black swoopy thing is from H&M; I am a lover of the High Street. I’m also wearing a really cheap and tacky gold necklace, with my initial, J. I always wear a lot of silver rings, which are inherited or gifts.
Tell me about your nails.
They’re stiletto nails, in a light blue with an under-sheen of gold. They are integral to me; they are an expression of my soul.
How would you describe your general style?
I’m attracted to dark things: I like dark wood and leather, and I wear a lot of black – I’m told it’s intimidating. I’m moving away from it a little, and am really liking lapis and gold. Lapis goes so well with gold, and is such a beautiful colour …Blue is my favourite colour, but I hardly wear it because I don’t think it suits me – apart from my jeans today, which are probably the first blue item I’ve ever owned.
How do people react to the way you look?
Emily Brontë once remarked, when she was judged in Belgium for wearing old-fashioned leg of mutton sleeves and refusing to wear a corset, that she ‘wished to be as God made [her]’. I’m inspired by that: people should be themselves. I think I am unique, and people’s reactions can sometimes be odd, and sometimes brilliant. I’m not traditionally masculine, and I’m happy to be more feminine. Near 100% of people think that I’m a woman, and I don’t mind that because I’m me, regardless of whether I am a man or a woman. How people label me doesn’t matter too much, because I am who I am. This is why people should experiment with fashion. You have to know who you are – as the Ancient Greeks would say, gnothi seauton – and fashion can be a tool for this, through exploring and finding out what works.
Who do you draw inspiration from?
Give me any strong woman, like Katharine Hepburn. Lana Del Rey is an interesting one. I love her music, but I worry that people glamorise the things she sings about. The way she looks is a bit of an inspiration. I adore the music and aesthetic of the 1960s and 70s, but I never felt like I was allowed to. Then Lana came along and brought it to me, by putting it into a contemporary setting.
Has your current work on mid-nineteenth century photography given you an insight into the period’s sartorial culture?
Photography at the time was quite spooky: people didn’t like seeing themselves reflected back on metal and glass. This allowed for some cultural self-reflection, which has snowballed into how we use photography today. Also, feminism was in its inception then; women were very slowly starting to take a handle on independent life. In terms of fashion, the big European fashion houses were way ahead of everywhere else, which is interesting, as it took longer for high fashion to disseminate, if at all.
Finally, Documenting Fashion would like to thank you for the beautiful contributor illustrations you produced for our blog. Can you tell us any more about them?
I’m very happy with them, and hope you are too. It was a fascinating process for me. It wasn’t a new one, because I often draw portraiture, but it’s really nice to have a set of people all interested in similar things. It was great to source and research what people are into. I realised that essentially, I am a fashion illustrator, which I didn’t consciously recognise before. Now I know that is what I’d like to do more of.
All opinions are the author’s own.
On 24th June 2014, Rebecca Jones posted a photograph on Twitter, addressed to the low cost clothing retailer, Primark. Her navy blue top, sprinkled with a neat grid of white polka dots, and worn with jeans, although simple and stylish, would not be out of place on a typical high street. What isn’t so typical, however – not even within the thousands of identical garments sold nationally by the retailer – is the label nestling amongst its folds. In addition to standard issue washing and care instructions in red and white printed text, is a handmade addition. Its idiosyncratic stitches and scrawled black capitals state plainly: ‘“Degrading” sweatshop conditions.’
Primark’s ethical disposition has never been entirely untarnished, and a major section of its website is dedicated to bolstering this, with photographs, videos, and attempts to address the moral question, explicitly quoted: ‘How can Primark offer the lowest prices?’. This initiative is especially important in light of last year’s tragedy at Rana Plaza, the garment factory that collapsed, killing over 1,130 workers.
Whilst the brand offers amongst the lowest in-store garment prices, it was by no means the only retailer to have used the factory, and therefore not alone in its association with unfavourable working conditions. These too, are representative of a much more widespread problem, and the heavily publicized disaster served to bring to public consciousness an issue that can be otherwise all too easy to repress. When faced with an accessible abundance of goods, in retail outlets thousands of miles away from the factories in which they are made, this sensation of consumer dissociation is exacerbated.
Other consumers also discovered handmade reminders of these ethical issues hidden in their garments. A similar example appeared in a floral dress bought by Rebecca Gallagher in the same Swansea store, whereas the third known example emerged in the form of a note, written in Chinese and concealed in the pocket of a pair of trousers, bought by Karen Wisinska in Belfast. The affected garments were all purchased a year or more ago. Although investigations have concluded that the incidents were likely staged, and added after arriving in store, this does not defeat their role in sharply raising awareness of the very real issue of fast fashion, and its implications.
Ready-to-wear clothing’s rise to dominance sped up after the First World War, when the industry began to evolve into its modern state. In the last thirty years, there has been a huge growth in availability, range and, indeed, excess of clothing, much of which – Primark’s wares included – is so cheap that it can be discarded at the end of the fashion season. Is this a demonstration of ready-to-wear reaching a tipping point? Is fast, throwaway fashion sustainable, environmentally and ethically alike? Can it truly exist without adversely affecting humanity – both in terms of unscrupulous treatment of producers, and corroding consumers’ sense of value?
Recently, a tide of organized and public protest against these issues has gained momentum, and increasingly, brands new and old explicitly promote consciousness. Italian label Progetto Quid, for example, transforms surplus stock into ‘limited eco chic collections’, employing ‘exclusively disadvantaged women’, and combats any residual notions that responsible clothing must be staid, with its trend-led design. Nevertheless, will this be enough to entice the average shopper away from the low cost and easy availability that they are accustomed to? Only time will tell whether ethics matter enough over convenience, and whether accountability and accessibility can converge. Perhaps the Primark ‘labels’ can become a catalyst for change that has long been required.
In 1923, the Gazette du Bon Ton employed what they termed a ‘Professor of
Colourism’ to provide advice for an article entitled ‘Dangerous and Virtuous Colours’.
Set upon a solid background of vivid, mustard yellow, the text and accompanying line
drawing, both printed in strong black, create a stark contrast, and subsequently
jarring visual sensation for the reader. Could this uncomfortable viewing be an
example of the danger of colour referred to by the article? Can colour perform an
assault on the senses in this way? If this explains the Gazette du Bon Ton’s
reference to danger, what, then, associates colour with the journal’s second
description, of ‘virtuous’? Such ideas on colour were not obscure, and in fact
appeared over a range of contemporary media, particularly the fashion press. Two
years later, in 1925, for example, Vogue mused that ‘there is… a touch of the
soldier’s swagger… of flaunting danger… in red hats.’ It proposed, then, that colours
have an ability to project characteristics. In this case, the characteristics were
associated with military violence, closely connected to the recent experience of the
First World War.
The aftermath of the war had a huge impact on the advertising of skincare products.
In the immediate post-war years, beauty advertisements engaged with women’s
wartime experiences, appealing to notions of wounds and trauma on a psychological
level. They presented the enticing image of peaceful care, healing and wholeness,
taking direct visual inspiration from new developments in medicine. However, this
caring image of comfort soon placed women in potentially threatening situations, and
a new, medicalised and violent aesthetic, which I term ‘beauty doctoring’, both
appealed to, and exploited, women’s war-invoked vulnerabilities.
In the years following, the impact of violence upon beauty advertising did not
diminish. References to colour and its potential dissonant danger appeared
frequently, particularly from the mid-1920s onwards, which coincided with
developments, and the increasing presence of colour, in beauty, fashion, and culture
– including publishing, photography, and film – alike. Women’s changing role amongst
this led to new methods of both their perception and self-agency, and within this,
colour played a crucial role.
Gazette du Bon Ton, No. 5, 1923.
US Vogue (1st March, 1925).
Tucked into The Courtauld’s History of Dress Archive is a rare and elusive fashion journal, Pinpoints. In its first issue, it declared its founding intention of seeking ‘a better understanding of Beauty.’ Certainly, the accompanying image depicts a beautiful woman, with her eyes closed, as if in a state of deep meditation. Other elements of the illustration, produced in black ink on a stark yellow background, also conform to traditional beauty: the timeless, hourglass proportions of a mannequin, and the classic vase sprouting elegant leaves. Yet these aspects do not add up to a harmonious whole. Contrarily, the woman is not depicted intact; rather, her head and arms are floating fragments. Together with the mannequin, she becomes a part living, part inanimate doll, seemingly in the process of removing her own head. Yet, with a peaceful expression, this is presented as a natural action. On a chair to her side lies a neatly severed head, like a perfectly interchangeable accessory. Again, there are no signs of the violence, merely serenity, and once more, the eyelids are blissfully closed.
This sleepy sentiment created – even in the face of physical fragmentation – is enhanced by the setting. Indicated only by a line for the horizon, and stylised rocks, a drifting, ominous and oneiric atmosphere, where anything can happen, is exuded. It is no coincidence, then, that the image was published at the height of fashion’s infatuation with Surrealism: the artistic and literary group that prized the subconscious, and dreams as a way of accessing and unlocking it. Doing so had the revolutionary promise of escaping the bourgeois actions that had led to the First World War. And violence – which still infused the shaken, de-centred life of interwar modernity – could be similarly progressive, as advocated by both André Breton and Georges Bataille: two Surrealist main players who otherwise tended to conflict. For Breton, ‘The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly… into the crowd’, and such violent tropes were at their strongest within the group’s visual output during the 1930s, coinciding with this illustration.
Whilst Pinpoints did not conjure such explicit violence, it nevertheless permeates its stylish surface. Within the image, threatening potential lies in the scattered, oversized sewing pins, which stand erect amongst the legs of the vase, mannequin and chair. Their sharp points are safely buried in the ground, softening their sharpness. Hidden in this way, their violent capabilities lie latent, and, being so close to resting, unaware eyes, their power intensified. The war was over, but anxiety prevailed, if only behind the eyes, beneath consciouness. From the violent capabilities of a the pin – humble, yet essential for dress – to the cool horror implicated by the presentation of human body parts as inanimate accessories, fashion is intertwined with Surrealism: not only superficially, as often claimed, but by demonstrating several significant principles. If only for a snapshot within the turning of a page, as fleeting and fragmented as the post-war quotidien, fashion was rendered a vehicle of violence with transcendent possibilities, lurking beneath a smooth, superficial veneer.
A. Breton, Manifest du Surrealisme, La Revolution surrealiste, December 1929. English translation by R. Seaver and H.R. Lane in A. Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism (Ann Arbor, 1969).