The popularity of the fashion exhibition has gained increasing momentum in recent years, transforming itself from selections of historical examples hidden in the darkened recesses of permanent collections, into a rapid succession of lucrative blockbuster temporary exhibitions highlighting contemporary trends and designers, which typically draw in millions of visitors each year. The complex reasons for this growing trend are the subject of much debate, but one thing remains certain: both the accessibility of fashion and its ever more assured cultural status only continues to grow.
Dries Van Noten: Inspirations is one such example of this recent international phenomenon, and is currently on show at the prestigious Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. However, this tribute to the Belgian avant-garde designer, whose distinctive combination of curiosity, humour and artistry has consistently challenged the creation and interpretation of fashion for more than two decades, is neither a retrospective nor a simple celebration of the clothes themselves. It is, rather unusually in the sphere of fashion exhibitions, a kaleidoscopic exploration of his extraordinarily vast range of inspirational sources, oscillating between music, film and art, historical textile samples and iconic figures of style, alongside examples of Van Noten’s own designs. Olivier Gabet, the Director of the Musée des Les Arts Décoratifs, has commented on this fresh and dynamic approach:
“In a world saturated with pictures, names and events, there are a thousand different ways to go about exhibiting fashion. Yet the singular dimension of a museum whittles this number down to just a few of any value…[Dries Van Noten] assumes that delicate balance which implies that a fashion exhibition is much more than just a show of objets de mode…instead offering that unique moment, that totally new experience of something completely new.”
Divided into themes ranging from ‘Uniform’ to ‘Francis Bacon’, each section of the exhibition focuses upon a specific aspect of Van Noten’s diverse and vibrant creative influences, be it a certain colour, culture or aspect of nature. The opening section, entitled ‘Punk’, immediately challenges and even overthrows the visitor’s expectations and interpretations of the theme by displaying not only predictable imagery, such as 1970s photographs of the Sex Pistols, but also incorporating an original ‘New Look’ ensemble from Christian Dior’s famous 1947 collection, among other seemingly anachronistic examples from art and fashion. Elsewhere, a section devoted entirely to the theme of Jane Campion’s 1993 film The Piano exhibits surviving examples of Victorian dress alongside Marcel Broodthaers’s 1965 sculpture of a pot of mussels.
Through this unconventional approach to fashion curation Dries Van Noten and curators at the Musée des Les Arts Décoratifs present an innovative new lens through which to consider the entire ‘process’ of fashion – from the very first flicker of inspiration, to the creation of a fully-fledged museum show. Intriguing juxtapositions between old and new, masculine and feminine, the decorative and the stripped back serve to highlight the designer’s characteristic tension between tradition and modernity, thus exposing the eclectic variety that, ultimately, lends Dries Van Noten’s work its singular richness and unique place within contemporary fashion.
My recent encounter with a woman disguised as a lobster with glittery flippers, brought to mind the psychologist J.C. Flügel’s ideas on protection and clothing. In 1930, he wrote that ‘[t]he desire for protection against human enemies has led to the development of quite a special kind of clothing, known as armour.’ Likewise, the woman wore this costume to protect against the negative experiences of everyday life, such as the emotional upheaval and awkwardness of a first date. Constructed from cardboard, however, her lobster armour was of the flimsy kind. Its material spoke to fashion’s contradictory nature: in lieu of protection the garment left its wearer vulnerable and transparent. Early commentators on fashion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often questioned the functional purpose of dress and, for Flügel especially, the psychological translation of materials, silhouettes and colours. They tended to ask what Joanne Entwistle later termed ‘why questions’ concerning people’s motives for dressing and the changing nature of fashion. Similarly, in her performance “about getting dressed” on 27 March, Rachel Snider began by recalling the reasons she changed her clothing, as a result of stains or for a particular occasion, for instance. From there she recounted personal experiences, such as first dates.
This performance was part of a series of collaborations between Rachel Snider and costume and set designer Petra Storrs entitled “Dressing for Breakfast” in which they explore ways of dressing, tying together childhood memory, comedy and collective history. It was also commissioned for the Relaunch of the Fashion Space Gallery at the London College of Fashion, a series of thirteen live events, ranging from workshops to live fashion presentations, held between 13 and 31 March 2014. Rather than focus on a central subject, each event addressed, according to the website, ‘a pertinent theme present within the field of fashion in its widest sense.’ Director Ligaya Salazar and other organisers intended Relaunch to serve as the gallery’s ‘starting point and blueprint for a new approach and exhibition cycle.’ One unifying aspect was the adaptable modular seating plan designed by The Decorators. Indeed the Relaunch logo was abstracted from this installation, present at every event in some form, cementing the importance of adaptability and rethinking in discussions of fashion in this new space.
To tell her story, Snider deployed oversized paper cut-out costumes with flaps, that looked like giant versions of dress-up dolls’ clothes. Two women, clad in combination underwear pinned the cut-outs – taken from an oversized clothesline – to Snider’s own late nineteenth-century style cotton chemise and drawers. The trio, adorned in the colourful and theatrical paper clothing, resembled marionettes.
Emotion was also treated as a material element to be pinned onto the body, and throughout her narration tears and bodily organs in paper appeared at the appropriate moments to translate anxiety, vulnerability, confidence, and pleasure. Armour for protection was balanced with glittery flippers for decoration. Language consisted of clothing, simple gestures, words and occasional bursts of music. Much like earlier commentaries on fashion, Snider reduced fashion to simple terms.
Yet this very simplicity underlined the complex, tacit associations of the physical and psychological. Snider’s argument that cardboard cut-outs were necessary to weather difficult daily experiences resonated with the entire audience. Flügel also related the physical to people’s psychological and lived experience and likened armour to clothing that protected ‘against the general unfriendliness of the world as a whole; or, expressed more emotionally, a reassurance against the lack of love. If we are in unfriendly surroundings, whether human or natural, we tend, as it were, to button up, to draw our garments closely round us.’ In contrast, reinforced by the lobster disguise, spectators recalled moments when their sartorial efforts failed to protect. Snider laced humour throughout her similarly bleak story further complicating surface materials, just as Flügel theorised that ‘positive and negative elements are so intimately intertwined that it is difficult or impossible to disentangle them.’
Entwistle, J. (2000) The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory, Cambridge: Polity, p. 57.
Flügel, J.C. (1950 ) The Psychology of Clothes, London: The Hogarth Press, pp. 69, 71, 74, 77.
On 6 May 2014, we held a study day at The Courtauld’s Research Forum. This day was a result of a collaboration between the Andrew WMellon Foundation MA 2013/14: Documenting Fashion: Dress, Film, and Image in Europe and America, 1920-45 and the Fashion Research Network. The theme, Documenting Fashion: Re-Thinking the Experience and Representation of Dress, came out of our collective concern to enrich the ways we think about and discuss dress, rethink universalising narratives, and incorporate the multiple sources that illuminate hitherto unexposed aspects of dressed experience.
To introduce the study day, Katerina Pantelides and Alexis Romano analysed a contemporary news image by Andy Rain that appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 30 April. The photograph, which documented people queuing at a bus-stop during that day’s RMT Tube strike, presented most study day delegates with a familiar, timely picture. As opposed to many strike images of overhead views of commuters in a frenzied swarm, this format allows a full view of queuers’ dressed bodies. Although it is not the most obvious fashion-focused image, it is a valuable document of contemporary, quotidian dress. Moreover, its non high-fashion quality pertained to the study day, over the course of which participants questioned what defines a fashion image or experience.
The image, which illustrates the close-up view of a line of people that recedes into the distance, is cropped to give the impression of the bus queue’s endless extension. Its constituents form a diverse group of people in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and fashionability. Overall, the people in the queue are united through their orderly linear formation and jerky, angular body posture that indicates their resistance. Exceptions to this rule stand out: for example the poised girl in black leather with headphones and her hands in her pockets commands our attention.
Viewers’ observations of the seasonal, utilitarian clothing worn by the subjects shifts to their sensorial reception of the image. They might feel somewhat stifled by subjects’ layered clothing of coarse materials: denim, faux leather, wool. Viewers’ feeling of closure is intensified by the photo’s close crop, while the image’s overall darkness owes to the dull, neutral colours of the dress worn.
If we compare this photograph with those in fashion editorials, for example, there are some crucial differences. The photograph is centred around a news event, rather than fashion presentation, and the bodies featured are incidental and not chosen in the manner of fashion models. Thus, we are presented with a more inclusive picture of contemporary dress and its wearers. In other ways, boundaries between the two photographic modes are almost permeable, from fashion’s interest in visualisations of the street to the use of similar techniques, such as juxtapositions between order and chaos, mass and detail.
The study day discussed the meaning and serendipity to be found in mundane experiences and images of dress, such as this non-purposeful photograph seemingly captured outside of real time when subjects turn inward. Similarly for Richard Dawkins: “[t]he word ‘mundane’ has come to mean ‘boring’ and ‘dull’, and it really shouldn’t – it should mean the opposite. Because it comes from the latin mundus, meaning ‘the world’. And the world is anything but dull… There’s real poetry in the real world.”
The Enemies of Reason (2007), television broadcast, episode 1, “Slaves to Superstition,” Channel 4, 13 August. Written and presented by Richard Dawkins.
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.
A phone rings. A woman begins to bathe, tentatively dipping her toe into a tub of warm water, before slowly pulling a stocking up her shapely calf. A man douses his shaving brush in cream before selecting the perfect pair of cufflinks. I’d Be Delighted To, an amateur film made in 1934, portrays a couple preparing themselves for a romantic dinner, every small step of their separate dressing rituals, and the evening itself, shown in close-up detail. This is not, however, a conventional visual narrative- the silent 14-minute film is played out solely through close-up shots of the couple’s hands and feet, as they engage in washing, dressing, drinking and dining, in a technique that shares affinities with the avant-garde cinema of the period and its alternative approach to that of Hollywood. These carefully angled shots of almost anonymous body parts, combined with inanimate objects, build up a powerful overall sequence, isolating specific details in order to form strong thematic associations between them and the viewer and therefore dramatically increasing the significance of their meanings. The direct result of this technique is a prevailing ritualistic mood and a sensual emphasis on clothes as tools for glamour and seduction. The tactile qualities of the clothes’ textures, such as the woman’s fur coat, glittering jewellery and silk dress is consequently illuminated in a manner bordering on the fetishistic, and the visual appeal of the garments becomes inextricably linked to desire and imbued with an erotic energy. The romantic tension between the couple is therefore heightened through the use and depiction of dress, presenting both a sensory experience of everyday activities such as dressing and dining and blurring the boundaries between intimacy and anonymity. The fleeting presence of a maid character, who assists with the preparation and serving of the meal, is enforced through a similar focus on dress. However, this time it is labour rather than luxury that is imposed upon the viewer as the decadently sumptuous elements of the female diner’s garments are sharply juxtaposed against the strictly utilitarian aesthetic of the maid’s plain ensemble. The overall resulting impression of this amateur film technique is an intriguing blend of both detachment and engagement, erotic charge and ambiguity; one that manages to distil its simple narrative with as much poignancy and visual force as any Hollywood sequence.
See ‘I’d Be Delighted To’ (1934) here (courtesy of the East Anglian Film Archive): http://www.eafa.org.uk/catalogue/3436
This commentary is based on a lecture given by Dr. Charles Tepperman, assistant professor of film studies at the University of Calgary entitled ‘“We are all Artists”: Amateur Film, Fashion, and the Art of the Everyday’. The lecture was given at the Courtauld Institute of Art in January 2014 as part of the Friends Lecture series based on the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation MA course ‘Documenting Fashion: Modernity, Film and Image in Europe and America, 1920-1945’.
Dress history students in London are spoiled for choice when it comes to exhibitions, with numerous institutions and galleries catering to fashion-related interests. The Fashion and Textile Museum is one such organisation. Their current exhibition, Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol (21 January-17 May, 2014), showcases textiles and clothing produced by key figures of twentieth century art and design. Focusing on Britain and the United States, it explores the relationship between the aura of the artist and the ubiquity of mass-manufactured objects and the way in which artist textiles disrupt the binary of high art and popular culture.
Looking at artist signatures featured on a number of exhibited textiles, it is difficult not to think of Walter Benjamin’s concept of the auratic presence of unique works of art. This is especially relevant to the many scarves featured in the exhibition. Mounted like canvases, they invite the visitor to study them as they would paintings. Dali’s designs for Wesley Simpson Custom Fabrics Inc. encourage this mode of viewing, transforming the flat fabric surface into a dream-like three dimensional plane. His headscarf ‘Classical Armour’ (c. 1946-7) depicts a derelict urn and suits of armour whose contorted shadows stretch across a nondescript landscape. Cracks along the illustration create the illusion that the scarf was made of a heavier substance than the silk it was printed on. With its many recognisable Dali tropes – drooping forms, melancholy landscapes, sardonic humour – the scarf seems to blur the boundary between art and design, transforming the wearer’s body into a mobile site of display. Furthermore, by drawing attention to the artist’s signature, in this case shown on the lower right-hand side and as a broken coin in the foreground, viewers are encouraged to forget that they are studying a mass-produced object.
Such examples displayed in the exhibition indicate that collaborations between artists and fabric manufacturers proved a lucrative endeavour, targeting audiences that were keen to gain cultural capital by acquiring textiles that featured well-known modernist designs. Instead of destroying the cult status of artworks then, such printed fabrics reinforced the aura of the artist genius and played an important role in familiarising a wide audience with the modernist canon. Although these objects may be viewed with academic suspicion due to their commercial appeal, the exhibition aims to dispel such concerns by focusing on how artist textiles allowed people to engage with modern art in their everyday lives. Wall texts, advertisements and magazine excerpts convincingly suggest that these fabrics served as an interface between high art and popular culture. At the same time, it would have been beneficial to learn more about how the displayed objects were worn and perceived by an enthusiastic public.
Although the exhibition predominantly focuses on the collaboration between artists and textile manufacturers, examples from the work of designers, such as Adrian and Claire McCardell add an exciting variety to its scope for audiences interested in fashion history. Commissioned by Fuller Fabrics to produce garments from their ‘Modern Masters’ range, McCardell used Picasso’s ‘Fish’ print (1955) to create a dress that featured some of her signature trademarks, which included the use of natural fabrics – in this case cotton – and details that accentuated the wearer’s body, such as belts and gathered pleats. Fuller Fabrics’ decision to hire McCardell indicates that some ready-to-wear designers were becoming increasingly influential in America during this period. Viewed within the context of the exhibition then, this dress points to the crucial role that mass-produced fashion played in twentieth-century material and visual culture by disseminating ideas and ideals of modernity.
‘The Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore’ exhibition at Somerset House caused a sensation. Victoria Sadler from the Huffington Post admired the construction of the show and celebrated the way Isabella ‘wore clothes’. Sadler recalled a feeling of optimism and commended the exhibition for its celebration of fashion as something that is ‘brave, emotive and innovative’. I first met one of its curators, Shonagh Marshall, a few years ago, in a funny little flat in East London, quite a world away from this meeting, in the foyer of Somerset House, at the entrance to ‘Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!’
The exhibition began with glass cabinets filled with personal albums and memorabilia, showing where Isabella Blow had grown up. A small video was shown of Blow leafing through a family album. There were photographs of her striking wedding day outfit and the outfit she had worn to Andy Warhol’s funeral. Immediately, there was a sense that her private life was inextricably linked to her public life, and her fashion sense courted this attention whilst retaining an intensely personal declaration of her own character.
Isabella Blow’s style and the remaining material clothes bear the imprints of a well-lived life. Beginning with family, the exhibition moved onto the definitive collaborative friendships that Isabella made throughout her career.
As we moved through the exhibition, Shonagh pointed out details that I had missed the first time around; a lock of hair that had been sewn into the back of an Alexander McQueen dress provided evidence of Blow and Mc Queen’s shared interest in martyrdom and relics. Blow had deeply loved Joan of Arc and the inspiration behind this particular Mc Queen collection was Jack the Ripper. The worn trail of a dress in the second room, a ‘nightmare’ for dress restorers to cope with, was a fascinating garment that managed to stay in the show. The stains and the tears linked to some of the theory that we have been reading on the Courtauld History of Dress MA, such as Iris Marion’s essay ‘Women Recovering Our Clothes’ (2005) and Lisa Cohen’s exploration of ‘the seam’ in her essay ‘Frock Consciousness’ (1999). Through its wear and imperfections, the dress spoke to the senses and contributed, along with the fragmented mannequins designed by Shona Heath, to the feel of a living garment.
Shonagh’s innate and encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history, which she shared in a lively and memorable manner, reminded me of our tutor, Dr Rebecca Arnold. Listening to Shonagh’s modesty about the most innovative parts of the exhibition was particularly inspiring. She created a sense in which it was, as if by luck, that the original footage of the various fashion shows from the Royal College of Art, seen in the second room, had been displayed. This was an ingenious part of the exhibition that allowed the viewer to feel the pulse of fashion at the time when Isabella was working. In many ways, Shonagh’s innovative approach to fashion curation created parallels between Shonagh and Isabella, something crucial, perhaps, for a curator to feel whilst making a show in someone else’s honour. Isabella’s own drive to bring art school graduates into contact with established institutions was matched by the introduction of art school film footage into the vicinity of the established institution of Somerset House and more broadly, the museum itself. Blow took Hussein Chayalan’s collection, featured in the show, in black bin bags to the boutique Browns on South Molton Street, insisting that they display his work. The exhibition itself was polished and sophisticated, both conceptually and literally. But what struck me most was that it stemmed from working directly with Isabella’s clothes, archiving them for another formidable character, Daphne Guiness. It was through this level of personal contact and interest that the idea for the exhibition had emerged. Indeed, Shonagh described archiving Isabella’s clothes from black bin bags, proof that the makeshift mentality of Isabella still lives on. In the fourth part of the exhibition, Julia (also on the Courtauld History of Dress MA) noted three of the same shoe, which suggested evidence of a lost shoe. Aware of our own outfits, we admired Shonagh Marshall’s heels, to which she responded that dealing with such a fashionable subject, she could hear Isabella asking her, ‘why are you not in heels today?’
As we moved through to Phillip Treacey’s impressive hat display, Shonagh explained how helpful Treacey had been, both in terms of his designs and the time he had spent hanging them. The seamless links between the private and professional were particularly evident in the bright pink phone and letters, signed by Isabella with a kiss. The following room was a moving celebration of Isabella’s clothes. The mannequins were in positions modeled on Blow’s gait and created a moving impression of the various facets of her personality. The faces were painted with differing make up palettes and some were displayed behind plastic visors to insist they were not reconstructions of Blow per se, but designed to give an effect. The outfits had been studied in correlation to press photographs to ensure accuracy.
As we moved back into the main room to admire the parachute cloak and line of beautiful dresses, Shonagh’s heel became caught in a wooden plank and she nearly went flying. In light of Blow’s insistence on the self-expressive qualities of fashion, often at the cost of function, it was a brilliant homage to Isabella herself, as we were standing just meters away from her three shoes, one probably lost to a similar fate.
Finally, Shonagh pointed out a grey Julian McDonald dress that was very rare because of its colour, cut and the year that it was made. It brought the dress to life and this is something I have definitely learnt through studying with Rebecca. Both Shonagh and Rebecca seem to make the underappreciated visible once again.
Following this fascinating tour, I caught up with Shonagh to ask her a few questions:
How does this project link to some of the other projects you have been involved with?
Prior to my position at Somerset House I archived the Isabella Blow Collection for The Honourable Daphne Guinness after she purchased the collection by private sale from Christies. After such a close bond with the objects in the collection it was an inspired opportunity to be able to bring the clothing to life in exhibition format. The solitary, private nature of archival work is so different to the curatorial role which is a public presentation of the clothing, with a constructed, informed narrative. Due to my previous role and my knowledge of the collection I was invited to co-curate the exhibition, with Alistair O’Neill as Curator, this was a wonderful collaboration in that Alistair has so much experience and the most fantastic constructions of themes and narrative whereas my focus within the exhibition was on the objects and where each fitted into the overarching exhibition journey.
The curatorial moments that were particularly inspired felt like the Royal College of Art footage and the editorial magazine pages from the archives. Do you feel like archives played a particularly important role in this exhibition?
On a personal note I do because of my relationship with the Isabella Blow Collection archive. The archive generally is becoming more visible, with many fashion houses and brands realising the importance in retaining their heritage. However it wasn’t a conscious decision throughout the exhibition to use loans from archives they were merely the places where this footage was held. Perhaps the current climate makes visitors more aware to consider where this pieces is stored and held, taking more interest in the archive that has loaned the object. However on a much more practical note, permanent museum collections such as the V&A or the Museum of London require around a year or more notice on loan requests– the total time to prepare the exhibition was just under a year (from research time and build).
You studied Fashion History and Theory with Dr Rebecca Arnold at Central Saint Martins. In what ways did that course shape your approach to your working practice now?
I went to study Fashion History and Theory at Central Saint Martins with Rebecca at the age of 18. Upon starting I had absolutely no knowledge of fashion history and after three years left with a love for academic approach to fashion. This as a grounding gave me such a lot, Rebecca has such passion for the subject this lead to a grounding in how to use research methodologies to collate primary research to discuss fashion in an academic voice. It was really exciting to have stumbled upon a course at 18 which has shaped my career so significantly, however the peers I met during that time remain great friends and they also shape working practice through discussion and sharing of ideas.
Do you think having an academic understanding of fashion benefits your working practice today?
Absolutely and I am very mindful to retain the rigour of an academic approach to curatorial practice. I feel coming from a background in BA Fashion History and Theory has given me the tools to approach subjects in this way and my studying MA Fashion Curation the theories surrounding curatorial practice. Exhibitions can be a really wonderful mix of academic and visual approaches.
And after such a fantastic exhibition, what are your plans for the future?
I am a curator at Somerset House so will continue to work on projects here. I however would like to possibly curate exhibitions of a smaller nature, perhaps a set of installations throughout the buildings.
The wardrobe is a physical space that houses clothing and insinuates expressions of self. It was also the subject of two exhibitions that came to a close this month: Roman d’une garde-robe. Le Chic d’une Parisienne de la Belle Epoque aux Années 30, Musée Galliera, held at the Musée Carnavalet, Paris, and Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! At Somerset House, London examined the ‘wardrobes’ of Alice Alleaume and Isabella Blow, two women who lived during very different periods. Both occupied advantaged positions in society and the fashion world, thus allowing exhibition viewers a privileged glimpse into histories of the early and late years of the 20th century in Paris and London. With the wardrobe as a foundation, as opposed to one designer’s work for example, we can approach fashion as a complex web of topics, sections, and professionals, including Alleaume – head saleswoman at the Maison Chéruit and other couture houses, and Blow – editor, muse, and broker.
The metaphor of the singular wardrobe also presents the personal and subjective dimensions of fashion and allowed viewers, in these instances, to re-examine a well-known media persona, as well as rediscover a forgotten figure. Both exhibitions began with explorations of the family histories of their subjects, which served to establish and extend the narratives chronologically, to Belle Epoque Paris for instance, and psychologically, providing insight into the subjects’ mindsets. In the case of Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!, curated by Alistair O’Neill with Shonagh Marshall, viewers were confronted with fragments of personal and national history that informed how Blow deciphered the world, and subsequently, how viewers analysed the exhibition’s contents.
The notion of the multilayered wardrobe reflects the complexity of any person’s narrative, as well as curators’ scrupulous research. The diverse resources on display at Roman d’une garde-robe, curated by Sophie Grossiord, including letters, paintings, notebooks, photographs, fashion plates, and surviving clothing, reflected the organising institutions’ focus on fashion and Paris history. Most importantly, Grossiord made use of the Paris Archives’ collection of drawings, fabric samples and dépôts de modèles – photographs of numbered garments that protected against copying. During her lecture at the Archives on 6th February, Grossiord explained how they served as valuable tools, along with cahiers de ventes, to piece together historic collections. The curatorial possibilities of these documents, however, are vast.
The wardrobe functioned as spatial metaphor for the installations. O’Neill staged sets that reflected the fanciful, sometimes archival workings of Blow’s psyche and wardrobe. Grossiord was much more conservative in terms of display and did not exploit the wardrobe’s spatial potential. The exhibition, however, situated fashion in the cultural and historic context of Paris due to its location in the Musée Carnavalet, which, according to the brochure, “invites visitors to discover Paris, the world fashion capital, in the company of Alice Alleaume.” Although the exhibition upheld the usual ideas on Paris’ fashion hegemony, its attempt at narrative was respectable. Equally, it would be interesting to use the wardrobe to explore the narratives of more ordinary subjects, which might further drive viewers to turn inward and question their own.