A few weeks ago, I decided to watch a video that was recommended to me online, which detailed the history of the Zamrock music scene. Zamrock is a term used to describe the psychedelic rock scene of 1970s Zambia. This video described how Zambia’s independence from the UK in 1964 saw a rise in Zambian creativity;the first President of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, decreed that 95% of music played on radio stations had to be of Zambian origin. Zamrock can be described as a mix of traditional African music with psychedelic funk and rock elements, with influence from musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, and the Rolling Stones. I was instantly captivated by this scene, and surprised that I had never heard of it before.
I was determined to discover more, as I could only find a few images online of Zamrock bands and their fashions. I noted one band called WITCH (We Intend To Cause Havoc) and was struck by their outfits. They wore a mix of traditional clothing with Western–style elements, and the most incredible floppy hats with brims so low that they disguised the faces of the band members. Luckily, I found that WITCH had an Instagram account, and saw that a film had been made about the band in 2019, directed by Gio Arlotta.The film documents the history of WITCH, the life of its sole survivor, Emanyeo ‘Jagari’ Chanda, and the subsequent re-formation of the band. I sent a message to see if I could find out more about theirfashion andreceived a reply from Giosaying he could help.After watching the film, and kindly receiving a wealth of images and information from email correspondence with Gio, Igot the answers I was searching for.
In my first email from Gio he stated that the fashion aspect of Zamrock is one of the things that drove him to make the film. In the film, we are introduced to Emmanuel Kampembwa, the Zamrock tailor who made the clothes that WITCH wore back in the 1970s, and still creates outfits for them to perform in today. A particularly fascinating design by Emmanuelis the big floppy hat, which is fitted at the head, then secured with an adjustable buckled strap, with the deep brim falling in sturdy pleats from the forehead. Jagari, a self-proclaimed hat enthusiast, commented in the film that the hat was useful for when you didn’t want to look at certain people in the crowd, and allowed the musicians to follow their feeling inwards. Gio stated ‘that the hats slowly became a staple of their look both to protect from the sun since they often would play during the day, but also to create an interior space of reflection while onstage’ (Gio Arlotta, email correspondence with author, 2020).Pictured below is Jagari wearing a hat and suit designed and made by Emmanuel, which reminisces to the hippie style of the 70s with the bold, geometric patterns and warmcolour palette.
The hat is one of the defining accessories of WITCH from their performances in the 70s. This film still of Jagari illustrates how the buckle allows for adjustments around the head, although Emmanuel tailors each hat to fit the head of the wearer perfectly. The brim can be worn down to cover the face, as demonstrated in this image, togive the wearer more privacy. Alternatively, the volume and thickness of the hat fabric also allows for it to be folded back over itself, to reveal the face of the wearer.
Gio also shared with me some photographs of Emmanuelmodelling his own creations in the 70s. These photographs are truly special. They reveal elements ofwhat was fashionable to wear in Zambia with thesignature style elements of theZamrockscene being noted through the wearing of bell bottoms and high–heeled boots.
These everyday looks designed by Emmanuel appear to be popular across the Zamrock scene, and young Zambian people at the time, regardless of gender. As seen in this photograph of Violet Kafula, dubbed the ‘Godmother of Zamrock’. She is pictured wearing typical 70s squared sunglasses, with her subtle paisley print shirt tucked neatly into her trousers.
Gio informed me that Emmanuel is still a full-time tailor. He sometimes createshis more flamboyant looks like the suitworn byJagari in the first image, as well as day to day outfits.Either way, they are always completedwith his signature flair.
One of the key style elements of Zamrock that stood out to me through examining these images were the platform boots. An article from the late 70s from The Times of Zambia appears in the film, titled ‘Those Boots Weren’t Made For Walking!’. The article describes the new fashionable fad of high heeled boots, which were being hand made by young people in Zambia from planks and animal skins. One of the photographs sent to me shows Jagari in 1975 wearing an incredible pair of platforms. The muted yet bright colours of yellow, orange, blue, and teal are composed together in a contrasting striped pattern. His jeans are cut just above the knee to ensure maximum exposure of these statement boots.
These boots do not appear to be handmade in the way the newspaper described, although Gio informed me that the boots were ‘bought and made in Nairobi, Kenya – still handmade, but in a more professional way.’ (Gio Arlotta, email correspondence with author, 2020). The Zamrock band, ‘Ngozi Family’ can also be seen wearing platforms, barely visibly under their bell-bottoms. Each member wears a stylish coat, identifiable to their 1970s era by the exaggerated,tapered collars. Tommy and Chrissy wear matching baker boy style hats, a style more familiar to the Western eye than the Kapembwa designed hats for WITCH, but still in theme with the popularity of wearing hats for performing.
The wearing of hats gets even more fascinating when looking at a performance photograph of the band ‘Salty Dog’. The one member wears a Scottish Tam O’Shanter bonnet, complete with a fringed leather waistcoat. Certainly not what you expect to be seen worn by a rock band in 70s Zambia. I discussed the effect of globalisation with Gio, as the crossing of cultures and fashion across borders kept standing out to me through these images and the film. This is illustrated in the film when Jagari went to visit his friend Groovy Joe.In his house a Tom Jones record is pinned to the wall, which excited me as a proud Welsh native,alongside other recordsby Black Sabbath and Cliff Richard. While globalisation may have played a part in influencing Zamrock fashions, the key ingredientwasto stand out. Regarding Zamrock bands, Gio explained that ‘whatever could make anyone stick out from the others was their preferred choice, so they would just get their hands on anything they could find and just make it work.’(Gio Arlotta, email correspondence with author, 2020).
The process of learning more about the fashion on Zamrock at first appeared limited due to the lack of resources I could find. However, Gio’s research of this scene in Zambia, andsubsequent film, has shed light on this extraordinary moment in time. The fashion of Zamrock can be summarised to three elements: hats, bell-bottoms, and high-heeled boots – ultimately, the final looks are demonstrations of individuality and boldness.
Gio described that ‘in a way their approach was very much an “anything goes” one, and often the more outrageous it was, the more they liked it (Jagari going onstage with torn pyjamas was something that many remember) and still to this day, before shows Jagari goes and looks for the most outrageous clothes he can find to wear onstage, be it at thrift shops or high street fast fashion shops.’ (Gio Arlotta, email correspondence with author, 2020).Jagari, and the re-formed members of WITCH, continue to perform in those special hats designed by Emmanuel, revitalising the 70s Zamrock scene and its fashion for a whole new audience of today.
Special thanks to Gio Arlotta for answering my many questions, and for sharing these amazing images.
Having completed her undergraduate degree at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Frances Crossley returned to study on the ‘Documenting Fashion’MA course with Dr Rebecca Arnold in 2018. Frances currently works at Richard Green Gallery and is also the AHRC Networking Project Administrator for the Fashion Interpretations project.In this interview we discuss how the global crises of today’s climate has affected the way we interpret and approach fashion, as well as how Frances’ MA dissertation about the reproduction of fashion and its cyclical nature is especiallyrelevanttoday.
MB: Hi Frances! Could you please expand upon how you came to work at Richard Green gallery, and what led you into becoming the project administrator for Fashion Interpretations (AHRC networking project)? I am interested in your experience working with traditional paintings and modern British art, as well as working with fashion. Do you find any interesting correlations between the two?
FC: Of course, so I began working at the gallery back in 2015. I had applied to do my undergraduate degree at the Courtauld and I knew that I would like to gain a little experience in the industry before committing to a degree, so I started at the gallery in a work experience capacity. I was older than most going into my undergraduate course and after working for a few years after finishing sixth form, I knew it was important to gain qualifications in a field I was interested in working in, long term.
I thought I would be at the gallery for just a couple of weeks, but I slowly began to take on more responsibilities and then before entering into my first term at the Courtauld (so I had been at the gallery roughly nine months), I was asked to join the research department and cover a colleague’s maternity leave – so throughout both my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees I was incorporating what I was learning every day at university into my research practice at the gallery, the two spaces continually informing one another. It was hugely instructional for me and though incredibly challenging at times, it genuinely taught me how to manage my time effectively.
In the years I spent as a researcher at the gallery, yes, fashion would occasionally creep into my work. In 2017, the gallery held an exhibition entitled “A Flair for Fashion” which celebrated the art of dress in British portraiture from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. This project was informative for me, highlighting how dress could be incorporated within the commercial art industry, but in a way that is educational and fun. It’s hard when you’re studying, to envision how our fashion-history obsessions can be tangibly woven into settings such as these; but this project proved it was possible.
Each portrait from the exhibition was impeccably researched – I was obsessed with the catalogue, it was really beautiful, and something I was so proud to have worked on and contributed to – each painting had its own accompanying essay and Aileen Ribiero, formerly Head of the History of Dress at The Courtauld, wrote an introductory essay for the catalogue and smaller essays on each portrait’s dress. As I had only been part of the research department for a year, I contributed to the essays and research where I could, but I predominantly helped with sourcing comparative images from museums, galleries, institutes from around the world to enrich catalogue essays – I really learnt a lot! This is one of my favourites that I helped source, (interesting as I later wrote on Poiret in my MA dissertation!):
I have to admit, fashion theory, actually art theory in general; very rarely came into my practice at the galleries; however, it has of course been present throughout my role with Fashion Interpretations, so that has given me my much-needed dose of post-MA reading material! And my path to the role was really simple: Rebecca sent out a DM to our MA group (*The Glitter Gang*) last September, letting us know about the vacancy. I applied – with haste, finishing my application on my birthday! – interviewed with Rebecca and Judith (and Oliver, the Courtauld Insitute’s Research Manager) and was lucky enough to be offered the position. It has been ridiculously dreamy, ever since!
MB:Could you discuss your role within the Fashion Interpretations project?
FC: My role has a pretty snazzy title, if I do say so myself – I am the project’s AHRC Networking Project Administrator (yup.). This effectively means that I am responsible for the project’s upkeep, making sure all the behind-the-scenes, administrative stuff gets done. I have been involved with a number of different parts of the project, organising our Networking Project meetings, helping to draft and, actually, redraft our budget – COVID has meant a project extension, project members unable to travel, our symposium being translated into a virtual event, etc. – which is completely new for me, preparing for our symposium (details coming very soon!), setting up and curating both our blog and Instagram account, coordinating Instagram takeovers by our members, and soon, helping with the production of Archivist Addendum – the publication by Dal Chodha and Jane Howard that will house all our project members’ work and essays, I will be helping with proof-reading our members’ submissions.
Events such as our Networking meeting in May have really stood out to me as an opportunity to be grateful for, grateful to be a part of; getting to listen to this fabulous group of people discuss their work. How they have interpreted the project’s theme, their individual translations on the ways in which modern and contemporary fashion is reinterpreted through various mediums. If you want to read more about what we discussed, I wrote a comprehensive account of our meeting for the project’s blog: https://sites.courtauld.ac.uk/fashioninterpretations/2020/05/12/a-change-in-meeting/
MB: Fashion Interpretations considers the way fashion is transformed through different mediums. Has this become even more prominent in discussion, now that the global pandemic has forced us all online in order to share and connect?
FC: Medium truly informs everything, it is the lens through which we filter every facet of the everyday. Therefore fashion, as an expression of the self, through dress, modification, as a material interpretation, is unimaginably affected by the COVID-19 crisis.
Fashion can be articulated through various media and though I am constantly viewing and cataloguing fashion imagery, as a personal practice and as part of my role for the project, the medium that I feel most readily in contact with is both the fashion I dress myself in and the fashion that defines the relationships closest to me. How each of my friends represents a unique interpretation of fashion, my sneakerhead brother’s endearing DMs about footwear drops he’s stalking online, the comforting smell of my mum’s bluey-green scarf that she wraps herself in when cold, the decorative hair accessories my best friends daughter removes throughout the day, punctuating the hours we’ve spent together – as we navigate through this crisis, it’s strange how I can identify the loss of these intimacies, small fragments of their personhood. That has been very meaningful to me, watching them resurface as lockdown has eased.
In order to continue sharing and connecting, we have to make a more definite move into a virtual space. Within fashion, taking an intrinsically material form of expression, a subject designed to be shared and interpreted as a collective, and channelling it through a medium – the digital – which could potentially isolate those taking part, it is a tricky transition. I think what is most important during the current climate is the establishment of communities and I feel very fortunate to be part of one through the Fashion Interpretations project. Our digital communications have been important to me, in these past months.
MB: Your MA dissertation examined what the act of ‘copying’ means in the fashion industry, specifically focusing on Parisian haute couture being copied by American ready-to-wear in the interwar periods. This ‘copying’ and recycling of trends is interesting to consider now, as fashion often looks to the past following moments of crisis (e.g Dior’s New Look). Do you think there will be a need for nostalgia in dress following the current global pandemic? Or will the increasing awareness in supporting local, small businesses, and buying vintage break the cycle?
FC: Yes, so in my dissertation I discussed how reproduction, or “copying”, is a valid mode of fashion production and a trend perpetually readdressed throughout fashion history. I had originally wanted to place my exploration in the present, or recent-present, due to a conversation I entered into with Edward Crutchley over Instagram, before starting my dissertation. It was a weird but very 2019 entrance into a dissertation subject and the conversation actually formed the basis of my introduction too – though the process felt quite informal, it simultaneously felt as though it had developed with me and my experiences, which made it special.
After the MA trip to New York, I formed a small obsession with American sportswear designer Bonnie Cashin and was regularly stalking the feed of the Instagram account @cashincopy [https://www.instagram.com/cashincopy], on which Dr Stephanie Lake (its owner) often posts comparative collages / images, placing designs of Cashin’s in conversation with similar contemporary fashions, “copies” – she has taken the matter of policing the reproduction of Cashin’s designs into her own hands. It encouraged a similar personal practice, wherein I began a sartorial version of snap with myself, banking images in my memory and “Saved” folder on Instagram, making connections to try and track this continuously looping pattern within modern fashion that kept resurfacing. Long story short – I found this image of Cashin wearing a tall, wide-brimmed hat online. As opposed to Dr Lake’s side-by-side layouts, I created and posted a two-image slide post. The cover image was from Edward Crutchley’s Autumn/Winter 2019 show during London Fashion Week Men’s in January 2019. The image features a collection of models backstage, two looking directly into the camera’s lens and a third – the point of interest in this comparison piece – whose attention is being held away from the camera’s gaze. Atop this third model’s head is a tall, wide-brimmed hat (designed by Crutchley, in collaboration with Stephen Jones), its structure is implied through a meshed, translucent nylon that allows the bones of the hat’s unique construction to be perpetually on show. It is fixed to the model’s head with a ribbon that fastens across the centre of her neck. Behind this image was an archival photograph of Cashin, modelling a cylindrical hat of similar design.
Dr Stephanie Lake later informed me that Cashin purchased the hat worn in this photograph during her travels for the Ford Foundation throughout Asia during the 1950s. I meant this post to act purely as a personal exercise, to visually demonstrate the cyclical movement of late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries fashion design and how fragments of the past are resurrected in contemporary modes, giving historicised motifs new meaning. But it inspired a response – as result, I assume, of a post-Diet Prada virtual fashion landscape – and Crutchley messaged me to correct my comparison, his AW19 hats were actually based on the traditional male, Korean bridal gat (a form of Joseon-era headwear): “My hat was based on a traditional Korean gat … the originals are horse hair but [Crutchley and Stephen Jones] used a nylon crin.” Another cycle, and we are shown how each articulation of this accessory is interconnected.
So maybe not so long story short, sorry (!), but these moments of reinterpretation, I find, are constant and so fascinating. And we crave them, look how many nostalgic, vintage-aesthetic Instagram accounts / influencers exist. I genuinely follow about 20-or-so fashion throwback accounts that feature the word “nostalgia” in their IG bio (now you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it). It is accounts such as these that push our eternal yearning to revisit the past in order to find new forms of inspiration – a gat for example, revisited for decades, taking on new meanings. I would love to think that the current climate will push us to support local businesses, to find creative, kinder new ways in which to reinvent our wardrobes and shopping practices but it’s so hard to not become disheartened by fast-fashion’s hold over so many of us. I feel – maybe it’s my age / who I follow on social media / the media or entertainment that I am constantly surrounded by – that our collective complacency has been recognised but it’s not being rectified ferociously enough.
MB: This recalls a post you wrote for the Documenting Fashion blog in 2018, ‘A Portrait of Jeremy Scott’, in which you discuss his self-awareness in presenting as a “King of kitsch”. An artist I worked with, Ben Frost, had his artwork (which addresses pop-culture and consumerism) used in Moschino’s 2018 fall/winter collection. The models wore Jackie Kennedy style pillbox hats, referencing the 1960’s, while also painted head to toe in varying colours, to appear ‘alien-like’. Is this “kitschy” nostalgia, but also desire for the future/other-worldly, a theme that you think will keep developing now in fashion?
FC: I think so, for certain brands, I think it’s connected to that desire to return to past styles. A craving for nostalgia, which, for me, is inherently linked to kitsch and this playful interpretation of “fashion” as something fun or borderline silly. To most, Jeremy Scott included, this could be translated through a childhood understanding of “dress up”, becoming a character and embodying their form through dress, makeup, exaggerated affectations. I remember this season that you’ve mentioned, Moschino AW18, the conspiracy theorist-esque backstory, the Jackie O uniforms absurdly blended with outer space undertones – I think Scott quoted his inspiration was sourced from this anecdotal urban-myth wherein JFK told Marilyn Monroe that aliens were real, Monroe freaked and threatened she was going to leak the story to the press and then she was killed as a consequence, total conspiracy vibes, messy, messy, messy. This is such a childlike reaction, you learn about a wildly fanciful story (be it fairytale or a political-sexual-extraterrestrial scandal), you pick at its most fascinating elements, then you haphazardly splice them together to create this wonderful hybrid. We’ve all been there…
Even last week, when Scott rebuilt the runway in miniature for the Moschino SS21 presentation, as a gloriously fantastical puppet show, all I could think of was the magic that puppets, small ornate wooden bodies held up by string and painted with little, delicate faces, held for me as a child (think Jim Henson or John Wright of the Little Angel Theatre). Though in that blog post you mention, I gave Scott a bit of a hard time, I was stunned by the thoughtfulness he displayed throughout the SS21 presentation, the show already feels like a piece of fashion history that remarkably documents our current circumstances, and the need for boldness.
MB: You are interested in how repetition manifests within fashion, have you noticed any repetition of trends happening right now? Or have you had any personal desire to dress differently as the lockdown is slowly lifting?
FC: Again, to me, to my eye, repetition manifests constantly, it is embedded into the fashion industry’s foundations. Fashion is a powerful cultural phenomenon that shouldn’t be reduced to a singular, “present-day” understanding. In her essay ‘So Last Season: The Production of the Fashion Present in the Politics of Time’, Aurélie Van Der Peer notes how we (academics / industry professionals / the fashion world-adjacent) tend to regard fashion as rooted in the present, that we discount how contemporary fashions are deceivingly characterised by the absence of fashion history. References such as the aforementioned: @cashincopy, promote the necessity of originality in fashion design but referencing of past fashion histories is essential to the way our current fashion system functions.
“Trends”, whether knowingly or not, possess elements of past fashions, maybe scrambled or purist. I have formed a minor obsession with sweater vests for example recently, knitted and in a variety of different colours, prints, perfect for a mid-season shift in temperature. This is a garment I associate with the nineties, but it also hangs in my memory as a distinctly seventies garment, and it’s present again in imagery from the decade previous, it pops up throughout the century, being repeatedly revived. See here a pic of sweater vest I would love to own, money no object.
I wouldn’t say how I am dressing is drastically different post-lockdown, I would say however that I am having to regain some confidence. In my early twenties, I had unshakable faith in my ability to covet and coordinate unique pieces, I always felt very strong in harnessing them into very *me* outfits but that strength had been slowly whittled away in the past couple of years and I think lockdown has exacerbated that feeling. Now, as I am venturing out into social settings a little more often, there’s time to prepare and put more care into the process, hopefully that will give me the space to rebuild the confidence that was lost.
MB: I was interested in your blog post from 2019 about the ‘Neue Frau’ in German Weimar-era lesbian magazines. I examined the sexual and social liberations of Weimar-era cinema in my dissertation; how gender fluidity and drag was accessed in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, 1959, by using the disguise of the more risqué 1920s, and the film’s original roots in Weimar-era cinema. Your idea that gender subversion was accessed through the multi-faceted identity of the Neue Frau demonstrates how self-image reflects the climate of a country (i.e. Germany’s fear of masculine women). How relevant do you think these themes of disguise, and re-fashioning the body in times of crisis are, in fashion right now?
FC: In lockdown we remained indoors for our own safety, for the safety of our family members and loved ones, those who were vulnerable and in need of protection – it served as a period of isolation, in order to preserve life. It felt like a hibernation, after which we would re-enter the outside world, though cautiously, in order to regain a sense of normality.
Whenever I considered the figure of the ‘Neue Frau’ (this was also the subject of my second assessed essay during the MA) I imagined her building this impenetrable layer of sartorial armour around herself and in the case of the women documented in the pages of publications such as Liebende Frauen, her queer identity – the heteronormative ‘masculinity’ that underlined her new age interpretation of femininity acting as a protective shield, to ward away those who ridiculed or refused to understand her. I came across these queer, Weimar-age magazines by chance, I was researching for my assessed essay and reading different event pages for the 2016 LACMA exhibition “New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919–1933”. In an article post by LACMA surrounding this exhibition entitled “Homosexuality Is a German Invention”, curator Nana Bahlmann noted several of these magazines, I then went on to contact Spinnboden—Lesbenarchiv und Bibliothek in Berlin and trawled through lots and lots of issues! It was such a fun process of exploration.
I think refashioning is conceived through conflict or trauma. In this tumultuous, interwar period an overwhelming number of men were removed from the urban workforce, throughout Europe and in Germany, through conscription. As in all combatant countries, women were therefore expected to fill vacant positions in order to maintain industrial productivity. Women occupied the spaces their male counterparts left behind. And in a post-war Germany, they visibly gained greater movement through previously inaccessible social and political spaces. However, this progression was compounded by economic and political insecurities that Conservative forces viewed as symptomatic of the newly formed Weimar Republic. A nationwide anxiety could work to actively stifle our self-fashioning freedoms, as this example demonstrates, but we have alternative spaces through which to channel such expressions. Though the virtual realm can be ugly and outright dangerous in many circumstances, it provides a much-needed environment to experiment with all manner of fashioning.
MB: At the start of May, the Fashion Interpretations group met as a full group for the first time via a zoom meeting. Will Fashion Interpretations continue to change and adapt to our current climate (regarding the black lives matter movement and covid-19 especially), in correlation with the way the fashion world is changing and adapting also?
FC: The horrific murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the shooting of Jacob Blake have irrevocably altered the fabric of our global consciousness. The viral video of George Floyd’s death became a catalyst for a civil uprising, spurring the largest-scale protests in American history. These are unavoidable tragedies that force us all to reexamine our own social and political practices, our own educations on black histories, stories, experiences. I cannot speak for the Fashion Interpretationsproject as a whole, it is a group of academics and creatives who work independently, but the Black Lives Matter movement has and will forever continue to influence my own research and writing.
And yes, the COVID crisis has affected how Fashion Interpretations functions logistically and certain events in our project’s calendar have had to be seriously adapted. As previously mentioned, later this year, we will be holding our symposium virtually, it will be a week-long event and our members will be discussing their contributions to the project and showing us they work – we can’t wait to share the details with everyone! A definite change in my working world that has been totally undone by the global pandemic is the constant influx of emails.
MB: Finally, do you have any words of wisdom you can share for the Documenting Fashion students who have just graduated. There is certainly an air of uncertainty when you graduate, which seems especially amplified now!
FC: To remember that if the future you had envisioned seems fragile or even unfathomable right now, that many others feel the terrifying weight of this crisis too. Also, none of us have encountered anything of this magnitude before, so to feel clueless in the face of its effects is not weak; we have to support one another through it, however we can. If you can’t find work relevant to your degree or the field in which you are interested, continue reading and educating yourself. Fill out as many applications in a week as you can stomach, write where you can, check in regularly with your *thing* – so for me, the patterns, if I can find a new link (it’s been fashion month, which has brought with it levity and some much-needed joy!) between the old and new, I am reminded of why I love fashion history and why I worked so hard for my degree – make lists (dream jobs, companies / institutions you would be proud to work for, different professional spaces you would be keen to occupy) – basically, keep busy. Don’t necessarily mount pressure on yourself but keep yourself agile. So, when your opportunity arrives, you are beyond prepared for it. Nobody ever suffered from being over prepared.
Brianna Carr is a Multi-Brand Commercial Executive at Estée Lauder and self- confessed beauty fanatic. Graduating from Documenting Fashion in 2015, Brianna frequently explored her love of the cosmetics industry, its history and influence in her research. Her MA dissertation, titled ‘Motif as motive : representations of Helena Rubinstein’s brand of beauty in America, 1915-1930’ explored the role that Madame C.J Walker, Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden played in shaping the beauty industry and the role of women in the Twentieth Century.
OS: When I was preparing for this interview and looking over your previous blog posts, the first thing that struck me was the clear interest in all things cosmetics, beauty and makeup, What was your earliest makeup memory and how did you find this niche?
BC: ‘I’ve been wearing makeup since I was about two years old- as soon as I could reach for my Mum’s lipsticks that was it. Makeup has been a part of my life every single day for as long as I can remember. I grew up with two brothers, so I lived in a very boisterous household, so beauty became my escape. At any opportunity I would sit people down for beauty treatments! I had my own pedicure box and when I was very small my dream career was to be a beautician. It’s my passion!
What is it about makeup that you love so much?
BC: Beauty is so universal; it doesn’t matter if you have a shower or do a 17 step Korean skincare routine, every process is connected to beauty. Beauty is completely inclusive, and transformative. It doesn’t matter who you are, how you perceive yourself or what your budget is, you can create whatever look you want, and this can change day to day.
OS: You wrote about three incredible cosmetics moguls, Helena Rubenstein, Elizabeth Arden and Madame C J Walker in your MA Dissertation- what made you choose this topic?
BC: I tried my handwriting about fashion, but I was far more successful when writing about beauty! Rebecca [Arnold] encouraged me to write about my passion and after we went to the Helena Rubenstein exhibition as part of our study trip to New York, I was instantly sold, there was no contest. Beauty is so rich and incredibly unexplored in comparison to fashion and I found it was such a joy to read about it all day long.
OS: I know from personal experience [I chose to write about the relationship between jewellery and fashion photography] that choosing a niche dissertation topic can often limit you in terms of resources. What was your experience?
BC: As there was such a limited range of resources it was easier in some respects; it was definitely less overwhelming as there weren’t as many sources to choose from but in other ways, it was harder to talk about beauty with any academic authority. The challenge was finding the niche into the topic that wasn’t alien to the conversation. Beauty was at first a largely elitist outlet for the upper echelons of society; beauty was available to only a small group of women that could go into department stores. Talking about cosmetics in response to the social and economic situation was really interesting but it was also difficult as most of my information came from premium beauty brands operating at the time. This was definitely a bias that I had to be aware of but I suppose that’s why I love it so much, from Revlon to Elizabeth Arden, everyone has a relationship to beauty.
OS: Going off the fact that you wrote about three incredible women, if you could have dinner with one of them who would it be and why?
BC: I think that Madame C J Walker would be absolutely phenomenal to have dinner with. What she did for beauty and for Black women in America was absolutely insane. I haven’t seen the Netflix biopic yet but she’s such an icon and an inspiration. This is so tough! Estée Lauder is still owned by the Lauder family and they run the company operationally day to day so I have been lucky enough to have had dinner with some of the Lauders…
OS: Both your MA studies and your role in marketing at Estee Lauder means that you have looked at a wealth of cosmetics campaigns over the last few years, is there a particular campaign that you wish you’d thought of?
BC: In terms of contemporary brands, Glossier does it best at the moment. They have completely revolutionized the beauty industry and completely respond to their consumer in a way that is entirely modern and has no ego. They let themselves be guided by their consumers in a way that big brands just don’t. Even though they say they do, it’s largely because they are following their competitors. For old-school brands, I’m going to have to say Revlon. They did it SO well. The ‘Cherries in the Snow Campaign’ was used to sell one off their most iconic nail polishes and I just love that. There are so many to choose from. Charlotte Tilbury is also interesting as she takes her cues from the Arden era of cosmetics. Charlotte is arguably Estée Lauder reincarnated! Her Goddess franchise would be as just as relevant in the Forties as it is today. Her language is so distinctive.
OS: When you were in my position writing your MA dissertation, how much thought had you given to the future after the Courtauld?
BC: I was always very certain that I would work in beauty. I worked on a Clinique counter for about four years whilst I was at University. After that I was determined to get to the Head Office and begged for an internship. I interviewed five times with no success but then they called me about an opportunity in Men’s Grooming which was very new to the company at the time. Nobody really pays attention to it as it’s such a small category. Just as an example, ‘Clinique for Men’ is worth as much as one product from Clinique. So, it’s a really small opportunity with SO much opportunity. In recent years, it’s tempting to think that male grooming is so often talked about and has so many competitors but still, no one really puts money behind it. I originally came on board with just my manager and then we grew to a team of eight. Unfortunately, though, the decline in retail meant that this project ultimately got axed. Following this I then started looking after multi-brand projects and tying brands together. Beginning with Men’s brands, I moved across to do the same for women’s brands. If you go to Boots in Covent Garden for example, they display lots of smaller brands on gondolas. Now I’m in the strategy team which is more involved with working on long term projects.
OS: Coming from such a client-based, interactive position, from Clinique Counters to Head Office, you have quite a unique understanding of how consumers interact with the products themselves. Do you think these big brands struggle to maintain a sense of personability?
BC: Smaller brands are entrepreneurial and have the ability to be very responsive to consumers. They can change their in-store models very rapidly. When you’re an established brand and owned by Lauder for example, it’s just harder to do it as quickly. That said, there have been so many changes in the beauty industry recently and many brands have modernised their approach. Something like multi-brand partnerships are so crucial as that is how people shop these days. You could go through my makeup bag and find 40 different brands! People have begun to browse in the way they would online, and brands have to respond to that. Nowadays Maybelline make just as good a mascara as more premium brands so if you can’t necessarily differentiate on the product, it is more important than ever to differentiate on experience. That’s why big beauty brands are still relevant today- they provide a premium experience that beauty fanatics are still in love with.
The difficulty is how these ‘old-school brands’ maintain relevance in the contemporary world. Now any marketing decision involves both a global and UK based marketing team, and these must compete with the values of retailers… there are so many nuances… between beauty houses… the identity of retailers… That’s why working with Men’s was so refreshing as those external pressures weren’t as big. We could do what we wanted.
Beauty brands are unusual in that more often than not, the consumer already has a relationship to you. They may be familiar with your products through their mother, grandmother for example. Today, marketing teams have to establish a perception of the brand that suits the modern age. In that sense, we can be often be out of touch as our ability to adapt is much slower…
OS: Working in Men’s brands, what is the most surprising thing you’ve learnt about the way men relate to beauty? There’s often an assumption that men want quick, easy ‘superhero style’ products. What are your thoughts on this stereotype?
BC: I think this stereotype has been broken down almost completely in the last few years. With men, you need to find an avenue that makes beauty approachable. You need to take beauty TO men and be where they are. This may not always be Topman. If your consumer is a cyclist who spends £3000 on a Raffa bike, he’s also going to want to invest in skincare as it will help with his performance. It’s about making sure that beauty is entirely digestible for the various types of consumer. If someone wants to spend £300 on their grooming routine they can.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that you can put Men’s products in a beauty hall and expect it to fly off the shelves. That’s actually something that we’ve been working on recently. We did a popup in Canary Wharf where 80% of the workforce are male. There is such scope and so much more research needs to be done but ultimately, we aim to suggest that beauty can be an experience that men can enjoy and that doesn’t have to involve being watched or judged in a beauty hall. The reason that I got into beauty was because it could be a special, magical experience for the individual; sadly, in the large beauty halls today, a lot of this has been lost. Makeup is now a commodity and it’s easy to forget that buying lipstick, whilst it may not seem like a lot, is a hard-earned treat for the person buying it. It’s a shame.
OS: More and more, fashion editors are discussing that ‘post-lockdown’ we’re going to ‘flock to the shops’ and enjoy retail in a rejuvenated way. Do you agree with this?
BC: I’ve actually been working on a project related to this. Personally, I think that people will want to celebrate occasions they might have missed or are postponing to next year. I think that people still want to invest their money and are not going to be as impulsive as they may have been. There will be more research and consideration into buying decisions. I also think that people are going to turn to their highstreets and want premium beauty to be available closer to home. Working on distribution strategy will be key for brands moving forward. I think more and more brands will attempt to display ‘hero’ products on gondolas in more accessible places. The consumer trends that will emerge will be really interesting. I’m also anticipating a rise in gifting as well.
OS: In other periods of crisis, the Second World War for example, beauty became such a huge means of boosting morale and keeping a semblance of normality in the face of uncertainty. Has putting makeup on been important to you in the light of Covid-19?
BC: I think makeup has an accessible ‘feel good factor’; you can throw on a lip and feel entirely different about yourself. I love the ritual of putting makeup on and feeling ready to face the day. Makeup is a way of showing others that you look after yourself; it’s a way of expressing yourself and showing yourself in your ‘best light’. Beauty is unusual in that it involves the viewer as much as it does the self. So yes. Absolutely!
OS: You mentioned Glossier earlier, as many of us are aware, their ethos is very much about minimal, ‘chill beauty’ centered around a handful of products. Is this ‘low-maintenance’ beauty how cosmetics defines itself today?
BC: I appreciate it completely, especially if it makes people feel good, but there is nothing wrong with accepting that ‘minimal beauty’ is not for you. I love putting on a full face of makeup, I’m such a maximalist. It’s entirely down to preference.
OS: If you weren’t in beauty, is there another industry that you would be part of?
BC: I would definitely be in fitness. I’ve danced my entire life so I would love to do barre training and become an instructor. I’d also love to open my own studio. I’ve always been into fitness, especially low-impact exercise like barre and reformer Pilates. It doesn’t matter how old you are, it doesn’t matter your fitness level, everyone can do it. Beauty will always be my passion but now it plays into so many more industries. Today, ‘feeling good about yourself’ is not just the job of the beauty industry, more and more, the wellness and fitness industry have taken that mantle. Like beauty, you still go to the gym for ‘an experience’ of wellness and escape…
OS: I agree, there is such a correlation between looking after yourself on the inside and changing how you look on the outside. Do you think that people will become more aware of their health and how they treat their bodies post-lockdown?
BC: Beauty and fashion is at the heart of culture so it often changes in accordance with the issues of the day, everything from animal cruelty to inclusivity and diversity. The brands that you buy are often aligned to your values and now there is a lot of pressure to be a conscious consumer. People often shop because they are aware of other people’s perceptions of them and there is an aspect of virtue signaling to consider- though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
OS: Is that what makes male consumers so interesting? The fact they are so function driven?
BC: Men do have an emotional experience with beauty, but they haven’t grown up with the same aesthetic expectations that women have. Now there is the added pressure of not only looking good but doing good and shopping ethically.
OS: In recent years there has been a real surge in fashion magazines publishing digital content surrounded around beauty. So many celebrities are filmed revealing their ‘5-minute makeup’, If you could look through anybody’s makeup bag who would it be?
BC: Hmm… I would love to look through RuPaul’s makeup bag, I’d love to see the 6-step contour routine!
OS: Many of the 20th century icons that we know, and love have become inseparable from their distinctive makeup looks, what are some of your favourite ‘makeup moments’.
BC: I love Sophia Loren, as with Audrey Hepburn, she has BECOME that look of eyeliner and nude lips. If they wore anything else, it would break the magic. As restrictive as this might be, God they look good!
OS: Why do you think people have become so obsessed with recreating that ‘look’ themselves?
BC: I think it’s because these individuals appear to be encapsulated by their makeup looks, the one thing that makes them distinctive. Sophia [Loren] Brigitte [Bardot] and Audrey [Hepburn] all use their eyes. You just need some eyeliner and you can become them!
OS: Now that masks are compulsory, eyes are even more important! Maybe the next campaigns need to focus on the eyes…
OS: There are so many iconic fashion moments in films… Do you have any iconic makeup moments that stand out to you?
BC: Yes!… Not so much a makeup moment but a look, Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon. She completely changed the eyebrow industry. Anything Julianne Moore does… she always looks absolutely spectacular with her makeup. Her look in ‘A Single Man’…. WOW. I also love Penelope Cruz for her lived in look… it’s something we can all achieve.
Jewellery is as old as humankind. As totems of status and style or as beautiful design objects in their own right, the power of gems, and the relationships they have with the people that wear them, has provided fascination throughout history. More than any other article of dress, jewels are the ultimate ‘slow-fashion’ accessory. They can be worn daily. They can be polished, cut, shaped and reset. They have the power to transcend time.
The ephemeral nature of jewellery has been manipulated by jewellers for centuries. A means of updating a piece to suit the changing fashion trends of the day, many of the world’s most famous jewels have been notoriously carved up. In 1911, Queen Mary was famously regaled in an August edition of the Washington Post for her ‘thrifty’ decision to reset several of her royal diamonds. In 2007, just under a century later, former Vogue Editor Anna Wintour was photographed wearing an amethyst necklace that had originally belonged to the monarch. Worn without the matching earrings (or Tiara!) the necklace was accompanied by a short floral dress and looked every inch the modern jewel.
This fashion for reworking royal jewels has not gone away. Last year, hawk-eyed fashion editors noticed that Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, had updated her engagement ring. Removing the stones (two of which came from pieces previously owned by the Princess of Wales) from their original thick gold band, the setting had been replaced with a delicate and much more contemporary jewelled design.
You don’t have to be royal in order to enjoy reworked gems. In fact, as fashion itself has made a conscious effort to become more sustainable, the market for vintage jewels has grown alongside our love for vintage clothing. Now, many contemporary jewellery designers actively embrace ‘upcycling’ in their work.
For Annina Vogel, jewellery is all about recycling. Inspired by the way that jewellery is often considered to be inherently symbolic, as was especially true in the Victorian Era, all Vogel’s pieces use antique charms that she sources herself. Producing a range of highly imaginative designs, including a series of repurposed lockets that incorporate vintage scarves from Hermes, Chanel and Dior, all her pieces are one of a kind. Historic and sentimental, yet modern and unique.
SVNR (pronounced ‘Souvenir’) exclusively uses ‘found, re-used and natural’ materials in each handmaid piece. Rather than costly gemstones or pearls, remnants of ceramic tableware, shells and non-precious stones are used in their unusual designs. Using previously discarded materials the brand aims to ‘call to mind forgotten memories’ and present everyday objects in new ways. Being both sustainable and sentimental, SVNR literally constructs contemporary jewellery from the materials of the past.
Lastly, for ‘cool-girl’ pearl brand Alighieri, sustainability is central to their ethos. Using 100% recycled bronze and entirely traceable stones, all the pieces are locally produced by a small team of London craftsmen. Coined ‘Modern Heirlooms’ each design is deliberately ‘timeless’ and inspired by classic literary references. In light of Covid-19, the brand’s founder, Rosh Mahtani pledged that 20% of online sales would be donated to the Trussell Trust. Sustainable and socially conscious, these ‘insta-worthy’ pearls are designed to be passed on whilst still making a difference in the world today.
So, as we return to normality, perhaps we should consider a new mantra when looking at our overfilled and largely neglected wardrobes? Adorn. Reset. Recycle. Jewellery is the original antidote to fast fashion.
2019 was the year of the accessory. From statement hoops to slogan slides, every inch of the body can be decorated for full sartorial effect. My head turner of choice – the hairband. A hair-raising trend since striking reemergence at Prada’s Spring Summer 2019 show, the so-called padded ‘powerband’ transformed the practical accessory into a major feature. The secret behind the success of these seemingly juvenile accessories? Their combination of practicality, prettiness and power.
Far from a decorative accessory, headbands find their origins in ancient Greece. A popular feature of classical dress, wreaths were symbols of godly status, intellectual authority or sporting prowess. The accessory of choice for emperors, goddesses or poets alike, a walk in the sculpture gallery of the V&A shows a whole host of headwear on the heads of statues and busts from classical antiquity.
Moving forward to the 20th century, designers like Paul Poiret and Gabrielle Chanel looked to the Orient and the exotic costumes of the Ballet Russes for head-turning inspiration. A means of channeling the glamour and mystery of the east, turbans, headwraps and silk scarves became the accessory of choice for stylish Hollywood starlets. Best worn over the sharply chopped ‘bob’ of the female ‘garcons’ or across the forehead of a fringed-clad ‘flapper’, the accessory served up serious style when worn on the court by tennis star Suzanne Lenglen in 1921. A symbol of increased female liberation, this simple hair accessory was part of a whole host of clothing and accessories that allowed women to engage in a more independent and active lifestyle. Thanks to the hairband, women could run, jump or dance their way into the twentieth century without hair in their eyes.
In the 1940s, headwraps and hairbands were popularised by the Ministry of Information as a means of promoting ‘war-time’ chic. A utilitarian essential for women working in ammunition factories, the practical reworking of this Hollywood trend was a far cry from the spotless white turban sported by Lana Turner’s ‘femme fatale’ in the 1946 film, ‘The Postman always rings twice’.
Most recently termed the ‘powerband’ by Vogue’s Julia Hobbs, the headband has been connected to female empowerment throughout history. In the 1980s, headbands were often paired with the power suit: a quick google-search of Hilary Clinton proves the politician had quite the collection! With this in mind then, it’s hardly surprising that both Cher Horowitz (Clueless) and Blaire Waldorf (Gossip Girl) frequently accessorised their high school politics with a band in black velvet or heavy pink embellishments.
Now, nearly 150 years after the hairband was worn by Alice as she stumbled ‘Through the Looking Glass’, (The 1871 illustrations of Lewis Caroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’ are said to be one of the first appearances of the accessory in popular culture), headbands remain a pretty yet practical style solution. Just last month, Net-a-Porter announced a 19% increase in hairband sales. A far cry from juvenile frivolity though, these reworked accessories are anything but saccharine. Appearing alongside Miuccia Prada’s hyper-female silhouettes at her SS’19 show, these elevated padded styles in studs, neon and satin are a powerful accompaniment to Prada’s feminine, yet feminist, muse. Similarly, frequent reiterations of the baroque crown – see Dolce and Gabbana or Charlize Theron at the recent Costume Guild Awards – afford the wearer a modern, regal edge.
The fact of the matter is this: the hairband has been a powerful accessory for centuries. Far from frivolous and exceptionally functional, the simple bands can elevate an outfit and evoke a variety of moods. Whether topped with studs, sequins or stones, they allow us to dress our bodies from head to toe.
Spring/Summer 2019 saw pearl earrings explode off the catwalk and onto the ears of many a fashion blogger on our instagram feeds. Large, irregular and often inlaid with semi-precious stones in surrealist settings, these pseudo-baroque creations are the latest take on the statement jewellery trend. No longer a revered hand-me-down from your grandmother or the ‘suitable’ option worn exclusively at birthdays, weddings and funerals, ‘Cool Girl Pearls’ have revitalized a gemstone that has fascinated the public imagination for centuries.
Pearl jewellery is thought to be so old that no one exact date of origin can be found. Following recent excavations in Abu Dhabi, Emirati experts announced that the world’s oldest pearl had been excavated from a stone age settlement near Abu Dhabi. Thought to be over 8,000 years old, pearls have served as a symbol of wealth, modesty and purity in most ancient cultures across the globe. During the Roman Empire, Julius Caesar ruled they could only be worn by the aristocratic elite whilst Queen Cleopatra is said to have crushed a pearl into a glass of wine to prove to Marc Antony that she was capable of holding the most expensive dinner in history.
Pearls have continued to enthrall wearers well into the twentieth century. Transforming from the jewel of European royalty to a mark of contemporary glamour, it seems fitting that Elizabeth Taylor’s acquisition of ‘La Pelegrina’, ‘the most infamous pearl in history’ connected Hollywood to a long line of regal predecessors.
In more recent times, independent designers like Alighieri, Sophie Pacheree and Nadya Shelbaya have sought to reinvent the idea of perfect pearls and the women that wear them. From imperfect shapes to unique, organic settings, contemporary designers celebrate the elegance of the pearl in its natural form. A fresh change from single-strand necklaces and modest studs, these so-called ‘cool-girl’ pearls break away from the conventional standards of jewellery popularised from the twentieth century onwards. Rather, these gems celebrate natural beauty, their organic and unrefined design mirroring the originality of the contemporary women that them.
Throughout history, the power of the pearl has never waned. As the latest chapter in the story that has enthralled wearers for generations, ‘cool girl pearls’ illustrate how a timeless jewellery trend has been reworked to suit contemporary consumer demands. Regardless of size, setting, shape or value, pearls remain a popular luxury of the natural world. To quote Jackie Kennedy, “pearls are always appropriate”; the girl with the ‘cool-girl pearls’ is undoubtedly here to stay.
A Biography of Tapestry: Moki Cherry: Home, Stage, Museum
What led you to choose this subject?
I was led to writing about Moki Cherry’s tapestries and their relationship to different environments because of the eerie absence of critical writing about her artwork (despite being exhibited internationally and being such an important part of jazz musician, Don Cherry’s aesthetic).
Favorite book/article you’ve read for your dissertation so far and why?
The best thing I’ve read is an issue of the feminist arts journal Heresies called Women’s Traditional Arts, The Politics of Aesthetics, from 1978. I found the writing and photography in here to be provocative and relevant. Lucy Lippard’s article ‘Making Something from Nothing (Towards a Definition of Women’s Hobby Art)’ provided a feminist approach to my research into Cherry’s tapestries and the social conditions they were made in.
Favorite image/object in your dissertation and why?
My favourite image is a poster that Moki Cherry made for a concert in Stockholm 1967. It was the first concert that she collaborated on with Don Cherry as Movement Incorporated. It was really rewarding to discover this poster among other archived papers, and to see the symbols of hands, lips, birds and stars that are recurring motifs throughout her later tapestries.
Clothes provide a protective layer between the body and the outside conditions. The following coats were seen recently in exhibitions in New York and respond to the notion of coats as a protective membrane between the human body and the outside weather conditions, as well as something the body lives in. The following ‘Sleeping Bag Coat’ (Norma Kamali, 1973/2017), ‘Self-Contained Housing’ (Daniel Durning, c.1982) and the ‘Security Blanket Coat’ (Bonnie Cashin, 1972) also comment on issues of housing and lifestyle through their self-conscious titles and the materials in which they are made from and the exhibitions they are shown in.
Daniel Durning’s ‘Self-Contained Housing’, a coat, hat and slippers ensemble, was exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art as part of their Club 57: Film, Performance, and
Art in the East Village, 1978–1983 exhibition (October 2017 – April 2018). By recycling found fiberglass insulation and plastic sheeting for this piece and titling it ‘self-contained housing’ Durning amusingly aligns the body with the home, and was made in 1982 to respond to the way artists were living in unheated loft spaces in New York in the eighties in scenes like ‘Club 57’. This piece reminded me of Final Home’s 1994 coat that was designed by Kosuke Tsumara after spending several nights sleeping rough in New York City which features up to 40 pockets that can be stuffed with material to insulate the wearer in the face of a natural or man-made disaster.
Going uptown and back in time, Bonnie Cashin’s ‘security blanket’ coat from 1972 was exhibited at Mod New York (November 2017 – April 2018) at the Museum of the City of New York. The mohair coat features a check plaid pattern that resembles the traditional material of a blanket, and the loose draping of the body, deep armholes and the fact it covers the whole body even further align it with the kind of warmth and protection one may use a blanket for when indoors keeping warm. This coat by Cashin, who was the first hired designer for Coach, takes an idea of comfort indoors to outside and onto the streets as outerwear. This design then follows the preoccupation with comfort and simplicity of design in American Sportswear that Cashin was known for and which is intrinsically linked with the post-war fashion design in New York in the 40s and 50s that challenged traditional design much like imaginative and diverse designs of the ‘Mod’ 1960s.
Norma Kamali’s ‘Sleeping Bag Coat’ (1973) was featured in TheMuseum of Modern Art’s exhibition Items: Is Fashion Modern? (October 2017-Janurary 2018) and like Cashin’s ‘Security Blanket’ it features a wrap-around design and a material reference to comfort and sleep, as opposed to Durning’s ‘Self Contained Housing’ that uses the actual infrastructure of the home for a garment. The idea of the coat came to Kamali during a camping trip when she wrapped her sleeping bag around her body to run to the bathroom. This backstory contextualises the coat with the camping holiday trend of the 70s that continues today and considers how clothing can be transitory and practical like a sleeping bag. This interplay between fashion and the functional object – here, the sleeping bag, but also wall insulation in Durning’s case or a traditional mohair blanket in Cashin’s – shows how designers were taking inspiration from a concern with survival, protection, sleep and innovation of materials not necessarily associated with fashion design, and creating space for innovative runway designs like Maison Martin Margiela’s duvet coat in 1999 or Viktor and Rolf’s fantastical bed dress in 2005.
I walk over Waterloo Bridge most days, and most days I am carrying a heavy bag full of the things I need for my day: books, planner, laptop, wallet, bottle of water, etc.
One time while walking I caught sight of my shadow. It was a softened-outline and vague: I was swaddled in a long winter coat that ties with a belt at the waist (and reveals the waist that signs ‘this is a woman’s silhouette’ rather than ‘this is a murky walking blob’). My body’s shadow was tilted. I had curved my back to the left side in order to rebalance myself with the weight of the bag I carried on my right shoulder. The weight of the bag pulled this shoulder downward and it’s bulge protruded out of the side of my body… a massive lump… a drooping rotund side stomach… my mutation of human form from what I had adorned and weighed down my body with.
I’m thinking about how lifestyle, environment, need alters the silhouette.
My bag (it’s weight, size, the way I was carrying it) and coat (it’s length, thickness, style, the way I chose to wear it) altered the form and movements of my body, my posture, my walk, my silhouette.
I chose this bag for it’s functionality and autonomy. The same dark hues as my clothes, it looks like it could be a part of my coat like a bulging pocket, or a growth my coated body has produced for survival (carrying the things I need to navigate my way through that day). The bag is made of a light canvas material, so that it has little of its own weight, instead it is more the contents of the bag that make up its weight and bulky form.
In 1994, Kosuke Tsmura launched Final Home with a transparent nylon coat that consisted of 40 pockets to be filled with what one needs to survive. This version of a survivalist way of thinking about dress, and how the filled pockets of the coat could simultaneously function as a form of insulation for the wearer reflects Tsumara’s concern with what a designer can do for people in desperate situations. Each individual wearer of this coat has their own idiosyncratic silhouette and form due to their needs, for depending on what they fill the coat with and in which pockets a different outline of the body would be created.
In 1997 Rei Kawakubo created a collection for Comme des Garçons called ‘Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body’, which is more often referred to as the ‘lumps and bumps’ collection. The collection used padding to alter the silhouette of the models bodies. Stuffed protuberances seemed like swellings of the body that exaggerated the shape of hunched backs, warped monobosoms or sloping shoulders and grew from the models bodies through the clothing design. This is what I was reminded of when I noticed my lumpy shadow on Waterloo Bridge.
MoMA’s current exhibition ‘Items: Is Fashion Modern?’ had a display of bulging mannequins in a row that were either of bulging bodies in which the clothes adhere to such growths (for instance the pleated Modular Dress 2.0 designed by Wei Hung Chen in which the pleats can adjust and loosen alongside the growth of a pregnancy bump, or open completely so that the wearer can breastfeed) or accessories such as bum bags and baby carriers that add the protrusion to the body’s form for purposes of functionality.
The Bernard Rudofsky’s 1944 sculpture series of what a woman’s body would be like if the clothing she wore actually fitted her body was also exhibited in ‘Items: Is Fashion Modern?’. These comic sculptures (we cannot ignore the flapper figure’s lack of arms and drooping bottom or how the bustle of the Victorian woman reveals the body of a centauress) display the changing silhouette of woman through her dress, and how fashion alters the way one might regard the human body.
Here are some of the visual notes I made while writing this article that were inspired by Rudofsky’s sculptures, the line-up of bulgy bodies at MoMA and my deformed shadow on Waterloo Bridge…
I often think about how we communicate with and understand the world around us – the way we talk, write, our phrases and our physical sensory experiences.
Fashion may be what we first associate with the physical and sensory experience, but also the vocabulary of fashion, dress and textiles slips into usage for how we describe the words we use when talking or on the page (typography), our relationships to ourselves and others, as a medium between our interior (intangible) and external (tangible) selves. I am continually rediscovering and relearning the English language with these thoughts in mind, and here are some of the synesthetic ways that fashion seeps into our words when we think we aren’t talking about fashion at all.
From rags to rags
Recently it came to my knowledge that the end margins of a paragraph (when writing from left to right, with a fixed left-hand margin) on a page are described as ‘rags’ by typographers. The irregular and uneven ‘rag’ that occurs resists the neat line-end and invokes the textile affected by wear and tear, or the tattered rags which one could be dressed in. But also ‘rag’ references the destruction of paper: torn paper results in ragged edges, it references a worn cloth one might use to clean with, rag dance parties, and multiple other ideas (and phrases such as ‘being on the rag’, which was first used to describe menstruating women in the 70s). If our typed words can prove rag-like in their paragraph structure, needing to be ‘fixed’ or ‘mended’ by typographers, then we ought to spend more time in reflection on this – how our words are like a material prone to wear and tear through the tactile experience of typography, or how regardless of the quality of writing a paragraph will be considered by ‘good’ typography, less ragged and more in adherence to a vertical margin shape – a shape that words, and the way we write doesn’t ‘naturally’ fit to. Perhaps with this idea of rags in the paragraph we can consider what the body is, or whose body it is that the rags cover?
N.B Rag is ‘le chiffon’ in French, and in English a ‘chiffon’ is a sheer silky fabric.
Îles of texts and textiles
We cannot ignore the etymological link of text and textile – there has been so much interplay with these interwoven ideas over time in the art and literary worlds (a recent example being the 2016 exhibition ‘Textile Subtexts’ at Marabouparken Museum). These two words have the same root from the latin ‘texĕre’ of ‘to weave’. The spatiality of the woven fabric in textile drew me to take a closer look at the woven words that make up ‘textile’: ‘text’-‘ile’. The English word for ‘island’, and French ‘île’ comes from the Old Frisian ‘isles’. We think about weaving words together to form a narrative and the texture of a written text, or the texts within a textile in how it ‘speaks’ to us and contains a narrative. The subsequent synaesthesia between the written word and a woven fabric due to their etymological ties proposes questions around the materiality of a text and textile and their spatial and communicative aspects.
Tissus and fabrics
The word ‘tissu’ in French means ‘fabric’ or ‘material’, which reminds me of the connective tissues of communication between mediums in Laura U. Marks’ book Touch: Sensuous Theory and Intersensory Media. ‘Tissue’ in English has two meanings: it is a woven cloth and the substance of which animals and organisms are made from. This other interplay between the materials we clothe our bodies in that covers our bodies – fabric of which we are made conveys the slippery binaries between our interior and exterior selves and skins.
Below I have listed some other ways in which the vocabulary of fashion pours out into our mouths when we aren’t talking about fashion at all: