Author Archives: Rebecca Arnold

sculptural forms, lush silks and hidden contrasts: the rediscovery of a Charles James dress

Bodice front view
Bodice front view
Bodice interior
Bodice interior
Close up of waistline
Close up of waistline
Close up of bodice interior, showing whaleboning
Close up of bodice interior, showing whaleboning
View of sleeve and self-coloured velvet trim
View of sleeve and self-coloured velvet trim
where the hem has come down, it is possible to see the horsehair interfacing
It is possible to see the horsehair interfacing where the hem has come down
Niccola's mother Jane Smith on her 21st birthday in 1954
Niccola’s mother Jane Smith on her 21st birthday in 1954

The first thing that strikes you is the sheer volume of fabric. Dove grey silk taffeta – and lots of it. Packed into a suitcase, this Charles James dress was a complete surprise. And a wonderful treat for my students and me!

But I’m running ahead of myself, I should backtrack and explain. A couple of weeks ago, out of the blue, I received an email from Niccola Shearman, a research student at The Courtauld. She had seen some quotes from me in an article on the current Charles James exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and wondered if I’d be interested to know that she had two James dresses.

You see, Niccola is James’ great niece, and she has inherited two precious reminders of his skill and creativity – the grey dress, which he made for her mother, Jane Smith’s 21st birthday party held at the Café de Paris in 1954, and a wedding dress. The latter is an especially intriguing piece of fashion history, originally designed by Charles Frederick Worth for James’ mother’s wedding in the 1880s, James later adapted it for his sister’s 1930s marriage, and then reworked it again, two decades later, for Niccola’s mother to wear, when she married John Shearman (one-time Deputy Director of The Courtauld).

Hearing this news was thrilling, and you can imagine our delight when Niccola arrived in my office with the grey dress, photographs of both gowns and fascinating stories about her family’s history. Born to an American mother and British father, James spent part of his life here in London. His obsessive approach to pattern cutting produced a series of extraordinary garments that were sculpted to the torso and engineered to spread out from the body in architectural folds.

Niccola’s mother’s dress bears these hallmarks. The bodice is constructed to fit like a second skin, mimicking mid-nineteenth century lines, it comes to a slight point at the centre of the waist. It has whale boning to make sure the fit is precise and that it stayed in place when worn. The sweetheart neckline is edged with self-coloured velvet ribbon, pleated to soften the line and flatter the skin with its textural contrast. The cap sleeves are pleated to make them curve out from the top of the arm to balance the overall silhouette. It is lined with palest peach-pink silk, that provides a secret complement – known only to the wearer – to the opalescent grey taffeta seen by onlookers.

And then there is the skirt. Pleated into the waistband – again an homage to the previous century – it stands out in deep folds from the fitted waist. The hem is held out by a wide band of woven horsehair that ensured the dress maintained its bell-shape swing throughout the party.

The dress therefore combines the fashionable 1950s style with its nostalgic references to Victorian femininity. And importantly, bears James’ signature in its attention to detail – it is hand stitched – his love of sculptural forms, created through clever construction techniques, and his fascination with lush silks and hidden contrasts.

It was wonderful to have the opportunity to examine the dress close up, and we are so grateful to Niccola for sharing this amazing piece of her family’s (and fashion’s) history with us.

5 MINUTES WITH… Antony Hopkins

Antony Hopkins

You would expect a librarian to be organised and efficient, and Antony Hopkins, Kilfinan Librarian, Head of Book, Witt and Conway Libraries at The Courtauld extends these professional skills into all aspects of his life. So, when I met him recently for a chat about his clothes, he had just packed away his autumn/winter wardrobe and swapped to spring/summer styles ready for the new season. This meant a pairing of crisp cotton shirt in a red and white check, and pale chinos – a suitably breezy outfit for the all too rare London sunshine.

While Antony favours American sportswear labels – today’s ensemble is all from Banana Republic – he is keen to set parameters on just how casually dressed you can be at work.  He has considered the possibility of wearing ‘a jean’ to the library, but he feels that ‘biscuit’ Calvin Klein trousers are as informal as he should go – although he has been known to wear cargo shorts in summer. And one of the things I like about Antony’s workwear is that there is always a slight holiday air to his outfits that adds to our libraries’ cheerful atmosphere.

Another aspect of Antony’s attitude to fashion that endears him to dress historians, is his consciousness of the ways clothing must not just meet your own ideas of appropriateness and style, but also – to paraphrase Erving Goffman – meet the expectations of those you will encounter in the workplace. Indeed, Antony draws on Ru Paul’s oft-quoted truism that ‘we’re born naked, and the rest is drag’, to describe his own dressing process as donning ‘work drag.’ A brilliant way to think about how we transform ourselves to – quite literally – perform our required role.

This is not to say that he ignores the more personal and intimate aspects of dressing. As he talks about his clothes, Antony continually refers to his partner and family – demonstrating how entwined our sense of self and interest in dress is with memory and relationships to others.  Thus, he describes how he and his partner share clothes – which simultaneously ‘doubles and halves your wardrobe,’ while he discusses his love of Crocs as in part a result of heredity. Since, as his Grandma would say, ‘we’re right wide-footed [in our family].’

Ah yes, the rather controversial subject of his choice of footwear. He has a big collection of Crocs, in various styles and colours that he shares with his partner. Antony sees them as not just ‘incredibly comfortable,’ but also as having a ‘Bauhaus-ness‘ to them. This opinion has led to an ongoing – good-natured – dispute with one of The Courtauld’s professors, who fails to see the link between these moulded plastic shoes and modernist Weimar design. A lively debate that only adds to Antony’s value to the dress history community, as well as to The Courtauld’s Libraries.

Re-Thinking The Experience And Representation Of Dress

Image for Study Day Essay

Image 2 for Study Day Essay

On 6 May 2014, we held a study day, Documenting Fashion: Re-Thinking The Experience And Representation Of Dress, at The Courtauld’s Research Forum. This day was the result of a collaboration between the Andrew W Mellon Foundation MA 2013/14: Documenting Fashion: Dress, Film and Image in Europe & America, 1920-45, and Fashion Research Network.

This is an extract from Dr Rebecca Arnold’s keynote talk, Wearing and Viewing Fashion in 1920s America, which focuses on 1min 49secs-3mins 15 secs of this film from the Prelinger Archives: click to see film.

The clip shows how people move and display their bodies at the pool – its jerkiness and speed only serve to highlight the jumps between swimwear and more formal promenade dress. Surfaces are continually displayed and broken, to provoke haptic responses within the viewer – the pool’s surface is breached by the divers, as their bodies impact the water, a repeated action that echoes the movement of the film through the projector, as they circle back for another dive. Their hair becomes slick and their costumes dark and heavy, saturated by water. Their dress and bodies’ materiality is twinned with their emotions’ materiality. Their vigour and joy as water touched skin is made manifest by the film’s own surfaces and movement. The swimmers’ happy faces provoke emotion in viewers – both at the pool, and in the viewing room. This emotional, tactile, visual response remains for us to experience now. In the 1920s, this would have been newer and more intense. Young women parade for, but also shy away from the camera’s stare, wrapped in short, graphic kimonos that add a Hollywood swagger to their simple unisex swimming costumes.  They are aware, if only dimly at this point in history, of how to behave for such scrutiny. Their movements are only slightly adjusted and modified for its gaze, but, like their peers, they remain amateurs – uncertain whether to acknowledge the camera’s presence. They occasionally return its stare, but through sidelong glances, cautious, about paying it too much attention. As Ian Craven has noted of amateur film: ‘At the same time, in their organisation of image, editing, point-of-view and camera movement, such films also disclose symptomatic family dynamics and gender roles on holiday, as well as broaching significant issues of authorship and control.’  The swimmers’ impromptu combinations of knitwear and bathing suits, everyday and leisure wear twinned with active sports clothes, underlines this blurriness. They perform their gender roles and fulfill audience expectations of what happens at the pool, but there is also an element of surprise and spontaneity in their actions and dress adaptations. The idealisation of reality – as depicted in this film, repeated and instilled the idea of the perfect day by the pool, the right way to play on the beach, dress for the promenade. Richard Koeck and Les Roberts have discussed film’s particularlity in this instance: ‘… The medium of the film creates a spatial depth that is different to that of other forms of visual representation. The framing of the location, the lack of colour, the richness of the picture contrast, the movement of the shutter, and, not least, the unedited nature of the footage render real spaces in a new light that is specific to the magical and photogenic properties of early film’. Thus, when seen in relation to fashion editorial and advertising imagery and other contemporary media, it is possible to track emergent forms of realism that are symbiotic with spectacle and conscious display.


Craven, I., ed. (2009) Movies on Home Ground: Explorations in Amateur Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.

Koeck, R. and Roberts, L. (2010) ‘Introduction: projecting the Urban’, in Koeck, R. and Roberts, L. (eds.) The City and the Moving Image: Urban Projections, London: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 10.


Collage by Alexis Romano
Collage by Alexis Romano


Inspired by our desire to share our ideas about fashion and dress with as wide an audience as possible, Documenting Fashion: A Dress History Blog brings together essays and comment from current History of Dress staff and students from The Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

We want to create a space to discuss the rich and varied dress-related activities and resources – and fashions – within The Courtauld itself, as well as commenting on fashions in the wider world.

We will also give snapshots of our work in progress, interview people about their attitudes to fashion and dress, and share an art historical, interdisciplinary perspective on what dress means and how it can be thought and written about now.



‘I spotted you there’: an interview with Jooney Woodward

JW_8 001
Shannon, Royal Welsh Show, 2013
JW1-test 001
Kallum, Norton Heath, Essex, 2013
Jodie, Hickstead, Longines Royal International Horse Show, 2013
Jodie, Hickstead, Longines Royal International Horse Show, 2013
Jooney Woodward
Jooney Woodward

Standing distractedly before the camera, the girl stares off into the distance, frowning. Her small frame is dressed in clothes that seem too grown up and formal, despite the bright red of her tie and the matching windowpane check of her jacket. Her jodhpurs and accessories tell us she is a rider – her outfit a statement of her dedication and intent – leather gloves, hacking jacket, and horse’s bridle slung over her shoulder like a handbag. And yet, despite all this swagger, something is slightly off, her pale yellow jodhpurs twist around her leg, her jacket seems too big, her tie is trying to escape from her collar, and her hair seems trapped in the tight hairnet that encircles her head.

It is just this sense of individuality within a rural community, that photographer Jooney Woodward is fascinated by. ‘Shannon, Royal Welsh Show,’ is part of her project ‘The Riders’ shot between July and November 2013, a portrait series showing scenes from a range of horse shows and tournaments at both amateur and professional levels in southern England and Wales. Jooney says of Shannon, ‘her pose is a bit awkward…she drifted off…was in a world of her own.’

Jooney seeks to make a connection with her sitters, as she says, to strike up ‘a mini-friendship, ‘ to put them at their ease. Chatting as she watches and waits for the right moment, she takes only a small number of frames of each sitter, as she says, ‘I don’t like chasing the photo.’ She works on a bulky Mamiya RZ 67. More used to small digital cameras capturing their image, sitters pause and interact with her – ‘people see you with this massive camera and they react differently to it … I think my stuff is quite composed, rather than action shots. The camera is so heavy that wouldn’t be possible…It’s all about the opening few minutes of a relationship. I want to capture how they were feeling before I came up to them’ –when something about their appearance, ‘their look’ made her choose them as subjects.

Interestingly, dress plays a significant part in this exchange. She often spots people because of the way they have styled themselves, or a striking aspect of their appearance – as in Shannon’s case – the hairnet seems both part of an accepted norm for riders, yet weirdly out of synch with the wearer.  Jooney uses clothes to start the conversation – ‘I spotted you there, and I love what you’re wearing, it makes you stand out from the background’ is an opening gambit that eases conversation.

And clothes are also an important aspect of Jooney’s own intuitive approach. Over time, she has realized that wearing ‘bright, happy, non-threatening clothes,’ make people more willing to stop and speak to her, and more relaxed when she takes their picture. As she says, ‘people have a certain look, and I think that’s what I want to capture.’

See more of Jooney’s work:

5 minutes with… Teresa Fogarty



How to dress for work? – This is a question women have been grappling with for at least a hundred and fifty years. How to appear appropriate, professional, fit into your environment, while looking stylish and individual? The Courtauld Institute’s receptionist of 12 years, Teresa Fogarty has another, more practical concern to add to the list – how to cope with the freezing winter air that blows into the foyer each time someone opens the front door!

As she says, ‘It’s quite awkward dressing smartly for work because I need to keep warm.’ So, Teresa has developed a well-edited selection of cashmere knitwear, neat trousers and colourful accessories to meet the challenge and project a stylish image to our visitors.

On the day we talked, she was wearing navy cords, and a matching cashmere cardigan and knotted scarf, with touches of bright primaries on a blue and white ground. Like a newsreader – her ‘audience’ usually sees her from the waist up – and her accessories draw focus, while also providing the needed protection from the elements, as she says, they ‘make an outfit and brighten everything up.’

Her eye for detail and coordination taps into workwear fail-safes that have developed since the 1930s. Soft textures, worn with tailoring and interchangeable separates are the key to her look. “I love cashmere…It’s so warm without being heavy,’ she says, ‘I generally go to Marks and Spencer’s or occasionally Jigsaw.’ Scarves are another favourite – a multi-striped silk one from Paul Smith proving to be especially versatile, its subtly varied colours coordinating with many different outfits.

Aside from her work outfits though, what is Teresa’s favourite fashion memory? Well, it turns out that she spent her teenage years hanging out at Biba. And, in keeping with her sharp eye for colour and cut – she wore a delicate blue-grey 1940s-inspired Ossie Clark dress for her wedding after-party in 1976. Bought in an Ossie Clark outlet in TopShop’s Oxford Street branch, it wrapped around the body with a tie at the waist, and in characteristic Clark-style, had a scooped out back and soft, billowing sleeves caught into a tight cuff.

Theresa remembers this as the most important outfit of the day – in contrast to her actual wedding dress – this contemporary fashion classic expressed her personality and love of dressing up in the evening – ‘I thought this [dress] was so special. The way it touches you and hangs from the body is so different…just makes you feel different…I suppose it’s all about the cut.’

And it is this appreciation of fabric and fit that informs Teresa’s choices, and shapes her work – and evening – wardrobe.