Category Archives: From the Collections

We analyse fashion and dress in relation to works from The Courtauld Collections

Installing ‘Winter Mode’ at Somerset House

1 - An empty vitrine
An empty vitrine…
2 - Objects and condition reports
Objects and condition reports
3 - Conservator Frances Halahan and co-curator Alexis Romano look over condition reports
Conservator Frances Halahan and co-curator Alexis Romano look over condition reports
4 - Co-curator Alexis Romano arranging the display
Co-curator Alexis Romano arranging the display
5 - Under glass! The final display awaiting wall text…
Under glass! The final display awaiting wall text…

I must admit, rather unprofessionally perhaps, that I was like a child on Christmas day during yesterday morning’s installation of Winter Mode, a display that I am curating with Dr Rebecca Arnold and Alexis Romano for Fashioning Winter at Somerset House. We had decided on our object list, approved labels, wrote condition reports and even devised a ‘dress rehearsal’ (see Alexis’s blog post from 4th November) well in advance of installation, but we had never seen all of these components come together.

We started our day by going over the contents of our to-do list, which we proceeded to tick off one by one. The two book cradles that Kate Edmondson, The Courtauld’s paper conservator, kindly made for us were ready. They were waiting for us at the studio, along with the two books they were designed to hold. We headed back to Rebecca’s office where we very carefully laid out all of the objects, to go over our sequence and arrangement one last time. This gave us the opportunity to make sure that we had the right viewing dynamic, with the different illustrations’ subjects connecting with one another through the direction of their gaze and body language. All of the fashionable ladies featured in the display are engaged in the act of looking, either at themselves, at art objects or at a winter scene, as if illustrators sought to remind their viewers of their own tendencies. We aimed to highlight this and to animate the display through their interaction.

At two o’clock we headed to the East Wing of Somerset House with boxes in tow, to find the empty vitrine waiting to be filled. Once Shonagh Marshall and Susan Thompson (head curator of Fashioning Winter and Somerset House exhibitions organiser, respectively) had arrived, we began by placing the textile panel, bound in a lovely Christopher Farr fabric, in the display case. Conservator Frances Halahan then carefully cleaned the surface so that no dust or microscopic insects would endanger the magazines once under glass. We then proceeded to arrange objects according to our well rehearsed plan and matched them up with their respective condition report so that Frances could verify our details’ accuracy.

Once the object labels arrived we reached the penultimate stage of installation; all that remained to do was meticulously review every arrangement before placing the glass over the display. We commissioned captions to look like vintage price tags in order to emphasise that, for many viewers, looking at these illustrations was like window-shopping. They are labelled according to one of three themes: Fashion, Sport, Battling the Elements. These refer not only to the scenes depicted, but also to the sense that each illustrator tried to convey to viewers: the thrill of ice-skating or the comfort of a warm coat on a frosty winter afternoon, for example.

With everything in position and checked, technicians expertly lifted and placed the glass over the case. As Shonagh pointed out, there is something quite satisfying about this final stage of installation. The glass seals and protects the objects, which will stay in place until the exhibition closes. Visitors are now welcome to move around, lean in close, and inspect the display. We hope you will enjoy Winter Mode!

We would like to thank the staff at Somerset House and at the Courtauld Institute of Art for their generous help on the day and leading up to the exhibition.

Exhibition update: Goodbye summer, hello winter! Planning ‘Winter Mode’

Co-curator Fruzsina Bekefi puts together a mock display

As they design fashion collections, with their clear link to upcoming seasons, designers must continually have the impression of being projected into the future. Fashion’s futurity affects shoppers too, who imagine their bodies in clothing that relates to seasonal elements. Co-curating the display Winter Mode (with Dr Rebecca Arnold and Fruzsina Befeki), one of the exhibitions that constitute Fashioning Winter at Somerset House, has resulted in a similar detachment between present and future for me. Summer and now autumn has been winter focused, as our display explores wintry fashion illustrations from the 1910s and 1920s, and specifically, how illustrators connected the subject to her environment, and represented at once the style, modernity, warmth and comfort of winter dress.

And as a rather warm autumn lingers, installation has already begun! While we, along with head curator Shonagh Marshall and dress historians such as Amy de la Haye, install our individual displays, technicians work to erect the ice skating rink that has inhabited the courtyard of Somerset House for fifteen years each winter. Both rink and exhibition open to the public on 11th November.

Although our installation is only two days away, there is still much to do. Our display showcases the fashion journals Gazette du Bon Ton, Femina and Journal des dames et des modes, and we’ve chosen the individual fashion plates as they relate to our three themes: The Elements, Fashion and Sport. We decided on the content months ago, but we must constantly adapt and adjust the display in view of issues that arise, relating to conservation or to display case constraints for example. And as display objects change so must our overall aesthetic. In the above photograph taken several weeks ago Fruzsina works on one of our mock exhibits! We are especially thankful to Antony Hopkins, Kilfinan Librarian, Head of Book, Witt and Conway Libraries at the Courtauld Institute, and Kate Edmondson, Paper Conservator at the Courtauld Gallery, for their support and guidance during this process.

Each journal on display will be identified by a caption that recalls an antique price tag, which we hope will carry viewers to a figurative shopping space, embellished by layers of history. And although they won’t be able to handle the journals on display, we’ve created a booklet for them to touch and peruse, with the help of the exhibition designer Amy Preston. It is our abstract interpretation of a historic fashion journal, and includes a fashion plate, editor’s letter, and other surprises. Will this intimate interaction heighten readers’ bodily sense of setting, and plunge them into winter? And those who attend some of the exhibitions’ associated events, such as our December workshop, will obtain their very own copy!

Motion, modernity and flux in Thayaht’s illustrations of Vionnet fashions

Gazette du Bon Ton
1923, no. 1, plate 3
Gazette du Bon Ton
1923, no. 2, plate 10
Gazette du Bon Ton
1924, no. 6, plate 29
Gazette du Bon Ton
1924, no. 7, plate 35

Recently, I’ve been looking through the copies of Gazette du Bon Ton in our collection, trying to find some cold-weather fashions for our upcoming display for Somerset House’s Winter Festival. In the process, I have come across several plates drawn by Futurist artist Thayaht for couturier Madeleine Vionnet. As those of you who have met me will know, Vionnet is a long-term obsession of mine. I find her work endlessly fascinating, and seeing the ways that Thayaht sought to represent her quintessentially three-dimensional designs is itself an absorbing topic.

Vionnet created her clothes in the round – working on a miniature mannequin to wrap specially woven textiles around the figure – and this makes her designs particularly difficult to capture in two-dimensional form. Unlike many designers, she never sketched her ideas first. And she didn’t divide up the body into back and front, sleeves and bodice etc. This means her garments enveloped the wearer – and curved around the body. She looked carefully at the anatomy and worked with the fabric’s bias to construct garments that floated just above the skin. This brought focus to, for example, the small of the back or the hipbones – areas that other designers tended to skim over. This sensual approach to body and fabric worked well in photographs, where live models could show the garments in movement, and the viewer could see how Vionnet’s work fitted to the body. But it was harder to translate into flat drawings.

This is where her close collaboration with Thayaht comes in. Working with a Futurist – who was himself interested in the relationship between dress and body, and who wanted to convey the moment – motion, modernity and flux – meant a close connection in themes and approach. These preoccupations made them a very good match for each other, since representation – whether in fabric or fashion drawing – was for them a means to explore what it was to be modern, and how this could be conveyed through contemporary art and design.

The images above show how this was achieved. Thayaht used a simple colour palette – as did Vionnet – so as not to distract from the overall form. He used force lines that reached out from the body into the surrounding space – to connect body to place and show how movement and form were linked through Vionnet’s designs. Whether at the theatre, swathed in furs, or on the links, playing golf, women inhabited space in new ways during the early 20th century. His drawings conveyed environment and emotion, too: dark clouds, that mirrored a dress’ smoky greys or a model’s flushed cheeks and anticipatory glance, that connected the blacks and reds of a dress to lush curtains and contrasted with electric lighting’s acid yellow at the theatre. Vionnet’s designs constructed new femininities and Thayaht’s drawings combined avant-garde art and design to demonstrate the effect this had on women, fashion and the spaces they inhabited.

Textile Fragments at the Courtauld Institute of Art


Dr Rebecca Arnold, Oak Foundation Lecturer in History of Dress & Textiles, showing students a 19th century bodice from the Harris Collection.
MA students Jessica Draper and Jennifer Potter, examining an 18th century stomacher from the Harris Collection.


Three woven fragments, each composed of similar red and gold threads in a design of kufic or pseudo-kufic characters, seemingly formed a complete textile at one time. Today, labelled and sewn side-by-side onto linen matting, with no documentation in reference to their creation, they serve as uncertain evidence. They also speak to the historian’s urge to retain, to classify, to learn, as well as to shifts in dress and art history.

The fragments form part of a larger collection of diverse textile and dress articles, held at The Courtauld. As students, we eagerly await opportunities to study historical textiles, such as these, up close, and it is wonderful to have a collection to work with on site. Recently, as well as looking at the textile fragments, such as those pictured, I viewed a late nineteenth-century bodice  – one of the few complete pieces of clothing we have in the collection. Deconstructed and decontextualised from its life as a worn garment, it now evokes bodily and other types of loss. The poignancy of such interactions is heightened as, through contact with the object, we connect to distant periods and places. Our viewing experience thus works on a separate level to our theoretical and contextual readings of dress, that form much of our research. While our tutor, Rebecca and I discussed the bodice, other students marvelled at the detailed, sculptural qualities of a stomacher from the seventeenth to the early eighteenth century. These objects at once evoke the visual culture of the period in which they were made, yet remain shrouded in mystery.

Intriguingly little is known about the collection’s provenance. An anonymous brochure, entitled, A Collection of Textiles: European 14th – 18th Centuries, explains that it was created by Lionel Harris, a dealer of Spanish art and antiques and founder of London’s Spanish Art Gallery, largely on his travels to Spain between 1876 and 1938, and provides a few clues to its content:

This collection of four hundred and sixty-six rare examples of woven and embroidered materials forms what is probably the most comprehensive collection of antique European textiles in private possession. It comprises several hundred fragmentary specimens of tapestries, carpets, needlework, embroideries, velvets, brocades, brocatelles, damasks, woolwork, and other woven fabrics. In addition there are more than four hundred silk and metal fringes, gimps, galoons, and metal laces, and forty tassels.

The brochure, which purportedly corresponds to an exhibition of the collection at Eton College in 1944, one year after Harris’ death, evinces period prioritisation in favour of quantity, connoisseurship and typology.

Information concerning the Harris’ collecting is as ambiguous as the objects themselves. In her 1987 collection assessment report, textile conservation student Caroline Pilkington surmised that Lionel’s son Tomas, who inherited the collection, “added to it as well as dispos[ed] of certain items.” At some point before his death in 1964, he gave it to The Courtauld on long-term loan. In 1968, according to Pilkington, The Courtauld Gallery exhibited fifty-four textiles from the collection with the help of Joan Allgrove, then Keeper of Textiles at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. Harris’ siblings, who were also dealers, collectors and historians of Spanish art, then officially donated the collection to the school in 1972.

In parallel with this, in 1965, Stella Mary Newton, a well-known fashion and theatre costume designer, established the The Courtauld’s History of Dress postgraduate course. Between 1973 and 1975 Newton and her students sewed the Harris collection fragments, originally mounted on cardboard with tape and other adhesives, onto linen supports. This followed a shift in focus towards scholarship and protection, and away from antiquarian collecting.

In 1986, Newton’s successor, Aileen Ribeiro asked Pilkington, assisted by a textile conservation student, to organise the collection and store it in acid-free paper. In her report, Pilkington described how she categorised the articles first by textile type, followed by pattern and rough dates. The report expressed a hesitancy to attribute facts, perhaps in recognition of the need for accurate scholarship to legitimise the field. She made note of omissions and possible errors, and regretted that “there was no time left for any research on the actual textiles or weaving techniques. It is to be hoped that this may be tackled in the future.”

What we have then is a tantalising collation of information and facts, from which to begin further exploration. We must begin however, with the object, as my recent visit made clear. In view of the fiftieth anniversary of the dress history course in 2015, it is fitting that Rebecca Arnold would now like raise funding to develop the Harris textiles into a valuable study collection that can be easily accessed by students. In its new form, the primacy of analysis and meaning over quantity would reflect a new phase in dress scholarship.

Winter Modes

Georges Barbier, ‘Pour St. Moritz…’ illustration from Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1. Feb. 1913.

Although summer is well under way, a few of us are already thinking several seasons ahead. Our department has been asked to contribute to Somerset House’s Winter Festival exhibition, which will feature a series of small displays on the theme of winter and fashion. Due to run from December 2014 – February 2015, this promises to be an exciting project and we are delighted to be involved.

Using our Dress History Collections, we have decided to focus on showcasing fashion magazines from the 1910s and 1920s. The imagery in publications, such as the Gazette du Bon Ton and the Journal des Dames et des Modes, built on women’s everyday experience, while simultaneously inviting them to enter a realm outside of the quotidian through lush depictions of fashion.

Our display will explore the dichotomy of function versus fantasy, through the journals’ illustrations of winter clothing and activities. So far, we are in the initial planning stages of the project, but we will update you with the progress we make on a regular basis. Keep your eyes peeled for some magnificent illustrations from the likes of Iribe and Thayaht!

A closer look at Renoir’s La Loge through the lens of fashion

Pierre-August Renoir, La Loge, 1874, oil on canvas, 80 x 63.5 cm, (The Courtauld Gallery, London)
Pierre-August Renoir, La Loge, 1874, oil on canvas, 80 x 63.5 cm, (The Courtauld Gallery, London)

Renoir placed fashion at the heart of La Loge, which he painted in 1874. His representation of a fashionably dressed young couple seated in a theatre box expressed the desire of the Impressionists to capture the beauty and excitement of modern life through a new language of painting. The physical transmutation of dress onto canvas shows that fashion is both a vibrant form of visual and material culture and a major economic force, indicative of wider social and cultural meanings.

The woman in the foreground, who some critics have referred to as Nini, has an elusive sophistication that dominates the painting, reliant on her character and deportment as much as on her dress. Her pose, in which one hand is placed on her handkerchief by her left hip, whilst her figure is emphasised by expert corsetry and luxury fabrics, renders her every bit the fashion model. Nini’s face is executed in minute detail, her features carefully and delicately modelled in such a way that our eyes flicker between the bodice and her face in search for the principal focus of the composition.

Renoir expresses the sensual tactility of Nini’s overall appearance. Her silvery painted face and neck has a slightly blurred texture that complements the gauzy fabric of her dress. Her sparkling jewellery captures the viewer’s eye and evokes the visual and literal consumption so fundamental to fashion. Renoir produces a poetic interpretation of the more prosaic details of dress through delicate, softly brushed forms of varying colour and tones. His paint handling is varied and fluent. Forms are delicately rendered without crisp contours. Nini’s gown provides a strong monochrome and triangular underpinning to the composition. Black and blue paint are mixed to suggest a play of light and shade. Surrounding this focal point are varied nuances of blue, green and yellow, which recur in the white fabrics, acting as a counterpoint to the rosy warm hues of the woman’s flesh and the pinks and reds that form the flowers in her hair and on her bodice.

If we look at La Loge in close proximity, all that can be seen are brushstrokes. When viewed from a distance, however, the dress sits back to display the three-dimensional forms lying within its stripes. This interplay between the informal, sketch-like appearance of the paint and the extraordinary amount of detail conveyed in the painting can be read as a visual manifestation of fashion’s complex and dualistic nature. Likewise, fashion can have the intensity of the personal, expressing individual taste and emotion, yet the power and impact of the general, encouraging everyone to dress in a certain, often homogenous, way.

Cristobal Balenciaga’s “Infanta” gown (1939): a story about origins?

Drawing made for Madge Garland, Winter Collections, Paris, 1939.
Courtauld History of Dress Collections.

A small arrow links the fashion sketch with the words “Spanish Influence”. This sketch was made for Madge Garland, editor of British Vogue, during the presentation of the 1939 Winter Collections in Paris. Cristobal Balenciaga (1895-1972) christened the design the “Infanta” gown since he had been inspired by Diego Velázquez’s portrait Las Meninas (1656). In this painting, the five-year old Infanta of Spain, Margarita Teresa, wears a dress with a tight-fitting bodice and a wide skirt supported by a dome-shaped hooped petticoat. Balenciaga’s version, with its contrasting colours, resembles her gown and echoes the shape and formality of seventeenth-century court dress. The clever blending of elements of historical dress with contemporary shapes ensured that Balenciaga’s 1939 evening gown appealed to both the fashion press, which has an appetite for novelty and innovation, and his discerning clientele.

In 1939 fashion journalists proclaimed the “Infanta” gown a “remarkable” phenomenon. In such narratives it was the presumed Spanishness of the design, inextricably linked to Balenciaga’s heritage, which was heralded as innovative and “different”. For example, on 15 September 1939, an editorial in American Vogue read:

“Balenciaga borrows again from that earlier Spaniard – there’s a Velázquez look about this dress, which Miss Mona Maris wears like a sixteenth-century court beauty.”

Balenciaga had arrived in Paris in 1937, a period in which nationalism had become an important topic of debate for both European politics and Parisian couture. He presented the collection in 1939, the same year that the Spanish Civil War reached new heights of violence, which included the firebombing of his native region, the Basque. Balenciaga’s reference to Spanish art history was interpreted as a personal quest for cultural identity and a nostalgic longing for origins.

However, several other Parisian couturiers also dipped into art history for themes and motifs in 1939. In British Vogue, Garland linked this trend to the feeling of malaise just before the outbreak of the Second World War:

“In 1939, every irrelevant romantic image was invoked, from the paintings of Boucher and Watteau to the personalities of Queen Victoria and the Empress Eugénie. Corsetieres were called in to help construct the boned bodices of the new-old gowns.”

The silhouette of the Infanta dress was in line with the historicist theme acknowledged by Garland, but also with the small corseted waists and wide skirts in vogue in Parisian couture. Timing was crucial and the Infanta dress became inextricably linked to the wider debate on national identities. Interestingly, the use of seventeenth-century Spanish costume elements by Mainbocher, the House of Worth or Lanvin was not met with similar response.

The Infanta dress had been designed by a ‘real Spaniard’ and as result, it was interpreted as a manifestation of Balenciaga’s distinctive national identity and culture. Scholars and journalists appeared to understand Balenciaga’s new role as their tour guide to Spain. It is important to note that there were a variety of other design elements in Balenciaga’s work that revealed that Spanishness was not his sole defining trait as a designer. Nevertheless, it was this kind of exoticism that, in 1939, sparked interest among his clientele, and proved undoubtedly beneficial to the cultural and economic capital of an emerging designer in Paris.


Arzalluz, M. (2010) Cristóbal Balenciaga. The Making of a Master (1895-1936), London: V&A Publications.

Garland, M. (1968) The Indecisive Decade. The World of Fashion and Entertainment in the Thirties, London: Macdonald.

‘Fashion: Hoop-Skirts to Hobble-Skirts at the…Paris Openings’ (American Vogue, September 1939).

‘Fashion: Paris Openings – Variety Show’ (American Vogue, September 1939).

‘The Great Painters Colour Paris Fashion’ (American Vogue, September 1939).

Pinpoints of Beauty & Violence


Tucked into The Courtauld’s History of Dress Archive is a rare and elusive fashion journal, Pinpoints. In its first issue, it declared its founding intention of seeking ‘a better understanding of Beauty.’ Certainly, the accompanying image depicts a beautiful woman, with her eyes closed, as if in a state of deep meditation. Other elements of the illustration, produced in black ink on a stark yellow background, also conform to traditional beauty: the timeless, hourglass proportions of a mannequin, and the classic vase sprouting elegant leaves. Yet these aspects do not add up to a harmonious whole. Contrarily, the woman is not depicted intact; rather, her head and arms are floating fragments. Together with the mannequin, she becomes a part living, part inanimate doll, seemingly in the process of removing her own head. Yet, with a peaceful expression, this is presented as a natural action. On a chair to her side lies a neatly severed head, like a perfectly interchangeable accessory. Again, there are no signs of the violence, merely serenity, and once more, the eyelids are blissfully closed.

This sleepy sentiment created – even in the face of physical fragmentation – is enhanced by the setting.  Indicated only by a line for the horizon, and stylised rocks, a drifting, ominous and oneiric atmosphere, where anything can happen, is exuded.  It is no coincidence, then, that the image was published at the height of fashion’s infatuation with Surrealism: the artistic and literary group that prized the subconscious, and dreams as a way of accessing and unlocking it. Doing so had the revolutionary promise of escaping the bourgeois actions that had led to the First World War. And violence – which still infused the shaken, de-centred life of interwar modernity – could be similarly progressive, as advocated by both André Breton and Georges Bataille: two Surrealist main players who otherwise tended to conflict. For Breton, ‘The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly… into the crowd’, and such violent tropes were at their strongest within the group’s visual output during the 1930s, coinciding with this illustration.

Whilst Pinpoints did not conjure such explicit violence, it nevertheless permeates its stylish surface. Within the image, threatening potential lies in the scattered, oversized sewing pins, which stand erect amongst the legs of the vase, mannequin and chair. Their sharp points are safely buried in the ground, softening their sharpness. Hidden in this way, their violent capabilities lie latent, and, being so close to resting, unaware eyes, their power intensified. The war was over, but anxiety prevailed, if only behind the eyes, beneath consciouness. From the violent capabilities of a the pin – humble, yet essential for dress – to the cool horror implicated by the presentation of human body parts as inanimate accessories, fashion is intertwined with Surrealism: not only superficially, as often claimed, but by demonstrating several significant principles. If only for a snapshot within the turning of a page, as fleeting and fragmented as the post-war quotidien, fashion was rendered a vehicle of violence with transcendent possibilities, lurking beneath a smooth, superficial veneer.


A. Breton, Manifest du Surrealisme, La Revolution surrealiste, December 1929. English translation by R. Seaver and H.R. Lane in A. Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism (Ann Arbor, 1969).

Edgar Degas, Woman Adjusting her Hair, c.1884

Edgar Degas, Woman Adjusting her Hair, c.1884 Charcoal, chalk and pastel. 63 x 59.9cm The Courtauld Gallery
Edgar Degas, Woman Adjusting her Hair, c.1884
Charcoal, chalk and pastel. 63 x 59.9cm
The Courtauld Gallery

A woman arches her back, twisting elegantly to the side, as she daintily raises her hands to her head, forming neat, careful, mirrored triangles. Her form is made up of frantic, expressive strokes of black charcoal, singed onto the buff paper with latent energy. This overspills into colour: zingy bursts of sunburnt orange, and rich, luscious green echo her movements. As do further sweeps of charcoal surrounding her figure: the ghost of a previous outline, abandoned by the artist, whose continued presence lends a sense of animation. In the foreground, an indistinguishable flurry takes place – the back of a leg, or the swish of a skirt – and the woman in question seemingly turns towards it, as another part within a precisely synchronised whole. Yet while the piece is by Edgar Degas, notorious for his effervescent depictions of the changing life of the ballet, this window reveals the careful orchestration that also took place within everyday life: in this case, as contained within a milliner’s shop. Amidst the movement of Degas’s piece, rest and relief lies in the bottom right-hand corner, where graceful folds of cloth lie sculpturally. They are seemingly set apart from the rest of the composition, reverently bathed in light, which highlights their soft luminosity. This focus on dress connected to a shift that was concurrently occurring: fashion was beginning to gain the momentum that would lead it to where it is today. The world’s first department stores had only recently been set up, in Paris, and began to offer, for the first time, garments that could be bought off the shelf, with little to no need for alteration. This set in motion the path to mass-produced clothing and the fast fashion available today, and such changes captured the attention of contemporary artists and intellectuals. They corresponded in particular with the Impressionist penchant for the pursuit of the new, the capturing of the contemporary. Édouard Manet once declared: ‘the latest fashion is absolutely necessary for a painter. It is what matters most!’ Degas was no exception, and the careful, loving attention he paid to the materiality of dress, in what is by far the most fully worked section of the study, advocated fashion, its importance, and nodded towards its serious social implications, during the 1880s and today alike. A quiet moment of appreciation towards female finery, within a rushing whirlwind towards modernity as we know it.


Darragon, É. (1924) Manet, Paris.