A brand born out of Central Saint Martins in 2006, with Edward Meadham and Benjamin Kirchhoff at the helm, Meadham Kirchhoff had a short-but-oh-so-sweet 9 year run full of awards, Fashion Week shows, and their Topshop collaborations.
Distinctly kitsch, cutesy and a little bit edgy, it is no surprise that Meadham Kirchhoff rose to fame during the ‘twee’ era of the 2010s, and as the trend’s revival is now upon us, it makes sense to take a closer look at one of my favourite Meadham Kirchhoff shows, SS14.
Edward Meadham described his mood boards as containing ‘a random mix of Jacobean and Elizabethan portraiture and lots and lots of Bowie’. This eclectic mix hints that the very fabric of the show is made from opulence, excess, ruffles and lace, the subversion of gender, and an interesting mix of bold black and white, dotted with pastel shades.
The collection was called ‘Ante Dominai [sic]’ meaning ‘anti-society, anti-mainstream culture. Do what you want, create your own alternative, your own narrative, and your own set of codes and morals.’
The show itself ran smoothly, despite a few technical issues such as the wrong music being played. It is immediately clear how Meadham Kirchhoff took their inspiration pictures and reworked, reinvented and re-inspired them into this eccentric show which somehow marries images of Seventeenth-century witches, Eighteenth-century royals, and kitsch pastel kittens.
Here are a few of my favourite images from the show, taken by Eleanor Hardwick, which might inspire your spring wardrobe now that the Northern Hemisphere is warming up a teeny, tiny, little bit.
I hope you’ve loved this show as much as I do. It feels opulent, rebellious, and youthful. I also think it’s quite clear where my love for Simone Rocha’s ruffles and pearls was born from…
** This blog post contains spoilers for Mad About Men (1954), La Piscine (1969) and Mahogany (1975) **
Sometimes I want to watch a film, not really for the plot, but for either the fashion, the cinematography, the set design or even just the general aesthetic. So, just in case anyone else has the same penchant for beautiful films, I’ve comprised a short list of three recommendations from the 50s, 60s and 70s respectively.
Mad About Men (1954):
Mad About Men is the charming sequel to the 1948 comedy film Miranda in which a lonely mermaid captures a young man and only offers to release him on the basis that he will take her to London. In Mad About Men, set in Cornwall, Miranda Trewella (Glynis Johns) returns and convinces her distant relative and doppelgänger Caroline Trewella (Glynis Johns) to let her take her place whilst Caroline goes on a biking excursion with a friend. In order to do this, Caroline fakes an accident which leaves her wheelchair bound, explaining Miranda’s inability to walk and need to keep her ‘legs’ covered with warm blankets. The pair also hire Nurse Carey (Margaret Rutherford), who knows Miranda is a mermaid and helped her in the first film too. However, even though Caroline is engaged back in London to the dull but stable Ronald Baker (Peter Martyn), Miranda playing as Caroline cannot help herself when she meets some of the town’s most handsome men, and she flirts, dates and kisses both Jeff Saunders (Donald Sinden) and Colonel Barclay Sutton (Nicholas Phipps). When Ronald comes to visit ‘Caroline’ in Cornwall, Miranda takes an immediate dislike to him and ends up pouring cold fish soup over his head. The Colonel’s wife is suspicious of ‘Caroline’ and ends up discovering her secret, so, in a plot to expose her, she agrees to let ‘Caroline’ sing at a charity concert and plans to reveal her mermaid tail on stage. However, Caroline gets back from her trip and takes Miranda’s place on stage whilst the Nurse feeds the microphone down to the cove where Miranda lives so her siren-esque singing voice can still be heard. The film ends with the real Caroline and Jeff Saunders sharing a kiss whilst Miranda is safely back in the Cornish Sea.
Despite mentioning earlier that plot isn’t important when watching for purely aesthetic reasons, this film is so fun and light-hearted it is difficult not to enjoy the story and fall in love with Miranda whilst you watch it. However, where this film really shines is in highlighting the wistful and whimsical beauty of Miranda and the more prim and proper styling of Caroline. Joan Ellacott’s costuming and Glynis Johns’ acting allows for viewers to differentiate easily between the Trewella girls. Here are some of the best style/aesthetic moments…
If you’re craving some warmth, you must watch 1969’s La Piscine, a film where the Southern French sunshine seems to seep through the screen. This film is the epitome of ‘embodied viewing’ where you can feel the sun and water on your skin, and you can smell the heat in the air. La Piscine is set in a villa on the French Riviera where a couple, Marianne (Romy Schneider) and Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) are enjoying the summer. After finding out Marianne and Jean-Paul are nearby, the couple’s old friend Harry (Maurice Ronet) and his daughter Penelope (Jane Birkin) come and stay. Whilst this initially consists of old friends catching up and new memories being made through extravagant parties, tensions soon begin to rise when Jean-Paul realises that Marianne and Harry were once lovers. The situation further complicates itself when Jean-Paul decides to seduce Harry’s 18-year-old daughter Penelope. The two men, whilst drunk, end up getting into a fight which culminates with Harry falling into the swimming pool. From here, instead of helping him out, Jean-Paul proceeds to drown him and then stages the scene to look like an accident. Marianne eventually finds out what Jean-Paul did but both continue to lie to the police and eventually the case is closed with Harry’s death being marked as an accident. The film ends with Penelope returning to her mother and Jean-Paul seemingly forcing Marianne to stay with him at the villa.
This film is beautiful all-round. The French Riviera location, the impressive villa, the cast and, perhaps most importantly the dressing and undressing of bodies. The theme of the body is central throughout this film, with long, toned and sun-kissed limbs filling the poolside shots. Here are some of the most beautiful outfits, shots and scenes…
First things first, the men in this movie are awful. Truly, every single one of them is just unbearable. But with that aside, Mahogany is firm favourite in every fashion lovers’ movie list. The film stars a post-Supremes Diana Ross as fashion student and department store secretary Tracy Chambers. Set in Chicago, the film shows Tracy living in the ‘slums’ of Chicago’s South whilst working at a high-end department store and harbouring dreams of becoming a high fashion designer. Tracy meets and begins dating Brian Walker, an activist fighting against the demolition of housing in primarily black neighbourhoods. Brian, whilst seemingly having a good heart and high ambitions for himself routinely brushes off Tracy’s goals as trivial and devoid of real meaning, insisting fashion is unimportant compared to his work within the neighbourhood. This means that when Tracy meets and befriends the renowned photographer Sean McAvoy who sees her as having real potential as a model, Tracy jumps at the chance to find an in to the industry which means so much to her. After a fight with Brian, Tracy moves to Rome to pursue modelling with Sean, who gives her the stage name Mahogany. A classic movie montage shows Mahogany’s modelling career take off and her charm and charisma capturing both the wider fashion world’s attention as well as Sean’s, who is interested in pursuing her romantically. Sean becomes increasingly possessive and struggles with Tracy’s free-spirited nature and inability to be controlled. Brian visits Tracy in Rome and gets into a fight with Sean involving a gun; Brian leaves Rome alone. At their next fashion shoot in which Tracy is posed inside a sports car, Sean is trying to ‘capture death’ and ends up getting into the car and begins driving erratically. Eventually, with Sean at the wheel, the car crashes leaving Tracy badly injured and Sean dead. In the aftermath of the accident, a wealthy count lets Tracy recover at his villa and sets up a design studio for her there. Instead of feeling fulfilled by finally reaching her dream career, she is left feeling frustrated, lonely, and unhappy despite the huge success of her first official collection. Tracy realises that success means nothing without Brian by her side and she returns to Chicago to be with him.
Despite Tracy’s life being littered with frustrating men who seem desperate to keep her potential hidden away, she does look incredible throughout the film. As a little sidenote, Diana Ross actually designed a lot of Tracy’s outfits as she trained in dressmaking before her career took off! Here are some of her best looks…
Yesterday I visited Amy: Beyond the Stage, the Design Museum in London’s eclectic tribute to Amy Winehouse. Amy is my favourite artist of all time; she was my number one listened-to artist on Spotify last year, and He Can Only Hold Her was my most streamed song. So, as you can imagine, I had high expectations for this celebration of her life and musical career. The intimacy constructed by the exhibition between viewer and Amy’s dresses, interviews and music did not disappoint.
From the moment you descend the narrow white stairwell into the exhibition, you are immediately transported into the world that was Amy’s. Pages from her childhood notebooks are pinned to the wall as you enter the first room; her jotted poems and shopping-lists speak of the charm and wit she had as a child and flourished in her public presence in the early years of her career. In the next room, a great screen plays videos of some of her best moments on stage as you read her hand-written lyrics and pick up headsets to listen to her in interview or in the recording studio. These deeply personal moments are punctuated by mannequins wearing her playful ensembles, with pieces from noughties high-street labels like Dorothy Perkins and Karen Millen that made her both charismatic and relatable to her fans. These mannequins, while scaled to her petit frame, are almost unable to capture how her clothes worked with her: sculpting not only to her figure, but also her spirited personality. After all, she was never an artist who required costuming to forge her on-stage presence: the clothes never outshone her, but became an indelible part of her iconic appearance.
Some of the most affecting moments of the exhibition occur not in the audio experiences, but in the small labels beside each exhibit. Each one describes the item next to it, whether it be her baby-pink retro Roberts radio or a pair of Dolce & Gabbana stilettos, with a reverse-embossed lyric and love hearts in Amy’s handwriting. The detail is ghostly but touching, permeating each object with her inimitable character. Anecdotes from her stylist, Naomi Parry, are testament to the significance of fashion in Amy’s life and career. One label reads: ‘we found a style that she was really comfortable with, and it became synonymous with her. It was like her armour – she put that on and she became Amy Winehouse.’ Accordingly, the third room of the exhibition, with a tiered stage of mannequins wearing her classic rockabilly styles, literally presents us with an army of Amy’s. Small glass cases on the lowest tier contain some of her accessories, many of them thrifted in Camden market. On the wall facing these mannequins is an exploration of her emblematic beehive hairstyle, and its 1950s girl-group influences, with a poignant label quoting Amy: ‘The more insecure I feel, the bigger my beehive gets.’ What prevails here however is a joyful celebration of her style, each piece imbued with a memory from her electrifying rise to stardom.
The only thing I wished for in the exhibition was more film and photographic documentation of Amy wearing these specific pieces, seeing as so many of them were worn at significant moments in her career. Here are just three of my personal favourite outfits showcased in the exhibition, worn by Amy herself:
This red Adidas zip-up dress appears in the section of the exhibition dedicated to her first studio album, Frank (2003). Amy wore the dress at several performances to promote the release of the album. The loose-fit lycra dress is elevated from being mere sportswear with the addition of a black lace bra that peaks through the drawn zip, giving her a sultry appearance to match the jazzy R&B aura of the album. Here she is as she takes the stage at an HMV store in Birmingham, beaming to the crowd before her. With her ‘Sonic Blue’ Fender Stratocaster guitar in hand (which is also in the exhibition), the sporty dress shows Amy ready for action as her career takes off.
This black Dolce & Gabbana mini dress is seen on the stage of mannequins in the exhibition’s room dedicated to her style, and was worn in possibly my favourite Amy moment. Amy donned the dress in 2008 as she was awarded ‘Record of the Year’ for the track Rehab, from her second studio album Back to Black (2006). The camera pans to Amy as Tony Bennett reads out her name as winner, and at first she seems oblivious to the announcement. Realisation suddenly dawns on her and she gazes up to the screen in disbelief, members of her band rushing to her side to celebrate their win. They embrace her in a group-hug so that all we can see of her is the flowers pinned into the back of her beehive. As she musters an unexpected acceptance speech, she proudly declares: ‘This is for London, ‘cause Camden town ain’t burning down!’
To the far-right of the stage, a few mannequins down from the Grammy dress, is an assemblage of some of the pieces created in a co-designed collection between Amy and Fred Perry. She regularly wore Fred Perry clothing off-stage, a brand which has proclaimed itself as ‘a badge of honour for just about every music-led subculture from ska to hip hop’, and also emerged as a staple in British streetwear in the 1950s. The collaboration was thus a perfect homage to Amy’s style: merging her rockabilly influences with her unrelenting dedication and love for London. While the ensemble shown here is not a direct match of the skirt and polo-shirt outfit in the exhibition, I think the elation Amy found in her style is captured perfectly in this instance. Her iconic silhouette – her waist cinched in with a characteristically large belt and her towering beehive – draws attention to her face as she laughs during the shoot.
For me, the most poignant moment of Amy: Beyond the Stage occurs at the very end of the exhibition. In a small curtained-off room, a performance of Amy singing Tears Dry on Their Own is projected onto a translucent screen as the music floods the compact space. The projection is like a painting in motion, its brightly coloured brushstrokes capturing Amy for a fleeting moment before they dissolve and reconfigure elsewhere on the screen. As the music fades, the projected curtains close on the screen, marking the end of the exhibition with a moving silence. Despite the absence of Amy Winehouse today, what is left is the feeling that the legacy of her music and her dynamic character will endure long into the future.
Here is a link to the Amy Winehouse Foundation, a charity established in Amy’s memory ‘to inspire children and young people to build their self-esteem and resilience, so they can flourish’: https://amywinehousefoundation.org
Here begins Jûzô Itami’s Tampopo of 1985. A mobster and his mistress, both glamorously suited head-to-toe in white, saunter to the front row of a movie theatre and set up their champagne feast. Our unnamed ‘Man in White Suit’ wastes no time addressing us, confidently leaning into the other side of the screen to see what we have brought to snack on during the feature, so long as it is nothing involving “crinkle wrappers”. After hysterically threatening to kill a man in the audience who dared to rustle about his chip packet, the movie theatre fades into darkness. The movie starts.
Tampopo is a visually delicious tale of food and love. The movie has always been a firm favourite of mine as a self-proclaimed ‘foodie’: each scene highlighting the etiquette of eating, the art of selecting the perfect ingredients and, above all, the momentous pursuit of the perfect bowl of ramen. Steam wafts from the surface of the hot broth so that you, behind the screen, can almost smell it. Chopsticks plunge into the soupy pool and retrieve long golden bands of noodles, followed by the menma and vegetables, and then succulent pieces of meat. Finally, the broth is sipped until the bowl is empty. I have never sat down to watch Tampopo on an empty stomach. It would be agony.
The central plotline of the movie – a parody of the American ‘Western’ genre – follows the eponymous Tampopo as she works to rejuvenate her rather mediocre ramen shop into one beyond compare. After a chance encounter with Gorō, a mysterious man on the road with an unparalleled knowledge of the dish, the pair toil to refine Tampopo’s ramen recipe, with a little help along the way. Punctured by a series of vignettes which explore other characters’ unique relationship with food, whether it be haughty French cuisine or hearty Italian pasta, Tampopo makes us fall in love with food again.
While food really is the main focus of the movie, Itami’s use of costume plays into his shrewd satire of the traditional Western genre, while contributing to the overall indulgent and sensual appeal of this food epic. Perhaps the most pertinent and ironic costume in the film is Gorō’s cowboy-esque look. His character is always dressed in a well-worn shirt – often with a neckerchief poking through in true Indiana Jones style – tucked into a pair of sturdy jeans. The Western look is completed with his trusty Stetson, which Gorō refuses to remove even in a scene where we see him in a bathtub. At times conniving, like the Western cowboys his character mocks, he encourages Tampopo to spy on other ramen shops to steal elements of their recipes. Gorō thus emerges as a comical play with the hero of the American Western. Like them, he is an adventurer. But he is an adventurer in search of good ramen, and the
only showdowns he engages in are with those who stand in his and Tampopo’s way.
Throughout the movie, Tampopo herself undergoes a Cinderella type transformation both in her culinary skills and her fashion. When she begs Gorō to be his ramen-apprentice at the beginning of the feature, she wears a simple white uniform and a protective scarf to cover her hair. This white uniform appears rather fragile, wrapped in clouds of steam and cigarette smoke as Tampopo works relentlessly at her broth. When the ultimate recipe is near completion, Tampopo goes through a classic movie makeover, first showing off a new professional chef’s outfit and then sporting a stylish ensemble to accompany Gorō to dinner. Upon seeing her in this particularly fashionable outfit, Gorō moans that she now looks “hard to talk to”. Her red polka-dot dress, complemented by her matching red lipstick, gives Tampopo a renewed sense of conviction as she edges towards being crowned ramen chef par excellence.
One of the most famed vignettes of Tampopo is the undeniably erotic ‘egg yolk’ scene between our mobster and his mistress. The couple pass between their open mouths a raw egg yolk, never allowing their lips to meet in a kiss, until it bursts in a moment of suggestive ecstasy. The golden liquid drips from the mistress’s mouth onto her dress, and transfers to the mobster’s lapel. Similar to those worn by the likes of Al Pacino in American gangster movies, his white suit was once a sign of his untouchable status. The indelible stain of the egg yolk on the once-pristine costume, however, speaks to the corruptive power of lust. And yet, this not merely a lust between man and woman, but between man, woman and food.
Raunchy interactions with eggs aside, Itami also uses the relationship between costume and food as a shrewd social commentary. One of the funniest vignettes (in my opinion) occurs when an old white gentleman sits down to eat dinner in an Italian restaurant in Japan. After ordering, he eavesdrops on a ladies’ society upstairs, who are being instructed by their leader on the ‘proper’ way to eat pasta like an Italian. This leader of the group, with her neatly coiffed hair and prim gold suit jacket, orders the women to never audibly slurp their spaghetti as this “is absolutely taboo abroad”. Much to her disdain, however, her commands are interrupted by the old man who is scoffing his spaghetti, and making a great noise while doing so. After watching him devour his meal, the ladies’ society and their leader succumb to mimicking his way of eating. Not a napkin in sight to protect their obviously pricey ensembles and accessories, regard for dress is thus cast aside – enjoying the meal is of the utmost importance.
Throughout Tampopo, Itami sets up a subtle yet provoking interplay between Western dress and etiquette, and Japanese tradition. His characters sport largely Americanised dress following the tropes of classic Hollywood genres which, according to Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, signifies the Japanese sense of the self in relation to other nations. The conservatively dressed ladies’ society, the Western look of Gorō, and the Americanised glamour or Tampopo at the end of the movie might, at first glance, point towards an overwhelming European and American influence on Japanese culture. However, this imitation of Western eating habits and dress is exaggerated by Itami to the point of parody. What prevails is the art of ramen. Our movie closes with a visit to Tampopo’s new professional kitchen, where she prepares a final meal for her fellow ramen enthusiasts. They devour every last morsel, drinking the broth one after the other before placing their bowls down for the last time. We leave Tampopo behind, and accompany Gorō as he climbs aboard his truck once more. Our ramen cowboy slinks into the distance as the credits roll, ready for another adventure full of flavour.
This post contains spoilers from the film Passing.
Jazz, novelty, dynamism and the rebirth of Black culture… It was the 1920s and the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing. Mainly taking place in New York and spreading to the rest of the world, the era spanned from the 20s to 30s and beyond. However, behind the glitz and glamour was an era tainted by prohibition and racial tensions. An esteemed product of this age, which captured the psychology, and tensions of the era subtly yet brilliantly, was Nella Larsen’s novel Passing (1929), recently adapted to a Netflix movie in the same name, by Rebecca Hall as her directorial debut.
Larsen’s story is centred around the encounter of two childhood friends, light skinned, mixed race African-American women, Irene Redfield (played by Tessa Thompson) and Clare Bellew (played by Ruth Negga), in Harlem, as adults and the tensions that rise between them. The twist of the story is introduced when the two women run in to each other at a fancy tearoom at the Drayton Hotel in New York, mostly reserved for wealthy, white upper classes. As it is revealed that Clare is married to a racist, upper-class white man from Chicago, who is however oblivious to her race, it becomes clear that she is ‘passing’ as white because of her light skin tone.
Irene is a middle-class, responsible housewife and mother living in Harlem with her black, doctor husband Brian and two boys. She is fervently tied to her race and community, head of the ‘Negro Dance Committee’ and centres her life around trying to do ‘the right thing’. On the surface she is reserved and abides by morals and class boundaries. Clare on the other hand is reckless, selfish, and passionate, living her life on the edge. However, both characters are intricately complex, juggling with tensions within. Clare denies her roots, yet she also yearns for a sense of community, longs to go back to her own culture, and thus gradually seeps into Irene’s life. While Irene is angry at Clare for denying her race, for her insistence and success at getting what she wants no matter the cost and her relentless challenging of the status quo, she is drawn to Clare and her mystery. Her desire to adopt Clare’s ease and allure makes her unable to drive her out of her life.
Hall lifts Larsen’s words and creates a film that conveys her spirit, and feelings through incredible symbolism. She foreshadows events through objects, accentuates the characters’ distinctive personality traits through clothing, conveys the tension and drama between the figures through dramatic camera shots and music.
Larsen tells the story from the point of view of Irene, so events are mostly tinged by her feelings in the book. Irene’s internal angst which comprises the base of the novel, is poignantly picked up in the film through close-up shots that focus on her facial expressions. Her frustration is amplified through the black and white lens the film is shot in, the chiaroscuro effect that seems to sharpen when Irene is on screen, lighting one side of her face while casting the other side in stark darkness.
On the other hand, Clare, who is constantly described as a ‘vision’ or having a ‘glowing’ sense of beauty in the book, is bathed in a soft light, devoid of the shadows seen on Irene’s face, bringing the glow that surrounds her to Irene’s surroundings, which are often darkened.
At the beginning of the film when Clare and Irene first encounter one another, the close-up shots distinctly switch from one woman’s face to the other. This technique is repeated later when Clare comes to Irene’s house for the first time. Hall amplifies the fact that the two women are in fact mirrors but also complete one another.
Although the scene in the beginning where Clare is revealed to be married to a racist man and hiding her identity sets the tension of the film, the film is overall devoid of any overt scenes of violence related to racism. Instead, racial tensions that are boiling underneath, are conveyed through secondary sources. In one scene, Irene hears from Brian that one of her sons were called a ‘negro’ at school and in another Brian reads about a black man being lynched on the streets of New York, on the newspaper. Even Clare’s husband John’s prejudice is based on what he has read and heard about black people on the news rather than a personal experience, as it is revealed when Clare introduces him to Ruth at the very beginning of the film.
The film’s high symbolism translates to many elements being conveyed implicitly rather than blatantly. Irene who suspects Clare to be having an affair with her husband, sees them having an intimate conversation through the mirror in the living room in her house, however as she approaches them, the camera then pans right, revealing them to be standing further apart from one another, hence conveying Irene’s growing doubts and jealousy that also cloud her judgement through the symbol of the mirror.
The crack in Brian and Irene’s bedroom ceiling becomes a metaphor for the crack in their marriage which progressively grows as Irene’s suspicions regarding her husband and Clare having an affair deepens as the film progresses. The viewer is presented with individual shots of the couple gazing at that crack, mostly after they have a discordance, in different points of the film. The symbolism becomes more potent as Irene’s marriage becomes turbulent.
In another scene, just as Clare declares her longing to become part of the black community again, Irene drops her flowerpot out the window which symbolises her unease and reluctance in Clare’s sudden intrusion in her life.
The palpable tensions between the women are also conveyed through a jazz piece titled The Homeless Wanderer that is repeated constantly in the film. The piano piece is a fluctuating one, harbouring a sense of melancholy, mystery, and an uneasiness, conveying the feeling of 1920s New York poignantly. However, this melody also mostly fills the intervals, repeated each time when Irene is seen walking home carrying groceries, passing the same brownstone buildings, or after a scene when Clare and Irene have an impactful conversation. On one side it emphasizes the monotony of Irene’s life. On the other, the piece becomes a metaphor for the masks both characters are carrying, the tentative balancing act they perform in keeping secrets, hiding their true selves. It becomes the voice of both characters, speaking what is unsaid, conveying feelings unexpressed.
The drama created through this music, the acute camera angles, and the sharp chiaroscuro emanates a Hitchcockian vibe in the film. The tensions rise as Clare increasingly infiltrates Irene’s life. With each move, gesture and gaze, the drama created through the music, the acute camera angles and sharp chiaroscuro carefully calculated by Hall, each scene becomes a perfect composition that reminds one of the theatrical and dramatic nature of the films of the 1920s and 1930s as well as American film noir. The drama, compressed feelings and tensions become even more amplified in the boxed, 4:3 ratio frame the film is shot in. The usage of black and white cinematography, while on the on side evoking the film style of the era, it more importantly, draws attention to the idea of race and skin colour. The idea of ‘passing’ is very clearly visualised as it becomes difficult to distinguish the skin colour of the two women from white men. It is an ingenious technique, in which Hall stated that she employed to draw the attention to the concept of race and its construction by the powerful figures in society to serve their needs while the fact in the matter is, the complex nature of race cannot be simplified and boxed into a category. She says: “After all, black and white film is not black and white, it’s a thousand shades of gray, just like everything else.”
The film becomes a distinct character study. The one aspect sacrificed for the black and white lens is the incredibly vibrant and colourful dresses of characters that are drawn specific attention to in the book. Instead, the two women’s identities are constructed through their silhouettes, the style of their dresses and more specifically, by their hats.
Irene, from the very beginning of the film enters the scene with a brimmed hat that covers half of her face. Throughout the film, she rarely goes out without a brimmed hat. The hat indicates Irene’s closed off nature and her reserved manners. It becomes much like a shield that she hides behind to protect herself from the rest of the world and to hide her race. This is further accentuated by her slumped posture and her modest, conventional outfits that mostly cover her shoulders. Even when she wears an evening gown with straps that exposes her shoulders, she wears gloves that cover more than half of her arms, always shielded from contact with outside world. Contrastingly, Clare rarely wears a hat. The ones she wears occasionally, always reveal her face. Her upright, firm posture is accentuated through her outfits that always seem to have bold shoulders. Whether it’s an evening gown, a coat, or a day dress, they stand out distinctly either through their cutting, the pattern of the fabric or embellishment, emphasising her strong stance, her confidence despite her precarious position. Although Clare is the one at risk ‘passing’ as white, it’s Irene who hides behind her hat, concealing her identity. The clothes distinctly stand in for the characters themselves.
Perhaps the film’s most striking scene comes towards the middle when Irene and Clare are out at the dance organised by the ‘Negro Dance Committee’. Irene makes a comment whilst observing Clare dancing, from the corner, saying: “We’re all of us passing for something or other. Aren’t we?” She condones Clare yet she undeniably envies her as she reminds her of her own inability to be reckless. Clare’s desperate, incessant, and fierce attempts to go back to her roots and immerse herself in her own culture, reminds us of the inevitability of the illusion of pretence fading, as the innate desire to be true to oneself surfaces which Clare quite unapologetically reflects. Both characters, on the surface, seem to belong to distinct categories. However, as both characters yearn for the position of the other, it is revealed that those categories are society’s circumstantially imposed labels. The story shows the consequences of living in a society were racism looms large, hiding one’s identity to ‘pass’ as something that is acceptable by the society.
The story struck a personal chord with Hall whose mixed-race grandfather had ‘passed’ as white in 30s. The making of the film became a cathartic experience for Hall as she described the process illuminating and clarifying regarding her own past and decent.
The film underlines Larsen’s idea, that the concept of ‘passing’ is not specific to an age or a race in its core but rather how people everywhere, at every age, at one point or another comply with society’s desires, rules, and beliefs to blend in, to ‘pass’. Yet it also shows the misery this creates and its unsustainable nature as it goes against human nature to be free.
Both Thompson and Negga give superb performances, breathing life to Larsen’s complex characters, conveying feelings of frustration, yearning and desire through mere glances. With nostalgic costumes, the jazz music that plays over shots of brownstone buildings of the city, the dramatic close-ups and the chiaroscuro effect, Hall captures the spirit of a bygone age, transporting us back to New York in the 20s.
Beautiful People: The Boutique in 1960s Counterculture, exhibiting at the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey (until 13 March 2022), unites over one hundred garments, worn by stars belonging to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and others which were sold at the likes of Biba and Granny Takes A Trip. The exhibition details this truly electrifying decade, one which was home to creativity, angst and rebellion alike.
To honour the occasion, I chose to wear a floor-length Biba coat, in a tiger-print no less, which I had initially ‘borrowed’ from my mother as part of a Cruella de Vil Halloween costume some years ago. A dramatic piece which isn’t exactly an everyday item, it felt like the perfect time to bring it out ahead of our much-anticipated MA Documenting Fashion outing.
While the first time at the exhibition for most, it marked the second visit for Susanna, Claudia and I who had each planned a respective visit almost as soon as it had opened in the beginning of October. Providing a fascinating combination of insights into the 60s, this exhibition explored the impact of cultural, social and economic change within the context of fashion and its design. Indeed, it could easily warrant a second or even third visit as there is a considerable amount of information to digest and, with such well-preserved garments, a desire to focus on each and every minute detail on any one jacket or dress.
At the beginning of the exhibition, a timeline situates key moments within the 1960s, where bullet points were replaced with the flower power emblem of the sixties, serving as one of many examples of the care and consideration which went into curating this exhibition. Outlining dates and information relating to the opening of boutiques along the King’s Road and throughout London, it also hinted at the importance and impact of the introduction of oral contraception on the NHS (National Health Service), which played a part in cementing this decade as the ‘swinging sixties’.
Further highlights included a recreation of some of the most iconic boutiques, signposted with the company’s logo, including both menswear and womenswear that were relevant to the boutique. The upstairs part of the exhibition was home to yet more clothes, and a few of us took it in turns to pick out our favourite pieces and note the occasion we’d like to wear them to. Jazzy jackets and flared two-piece suits proved to be our top picks.
As we made our way to the photography gallery, I was drawn to the article ‘Qui sont les filles anglaises? [Who are the English girls?]’ and a quote from Jenny Boyd outlining ‘Elles me ressemblent [They look just like me]’ for the 1966 December issue of Mademoiselle Âge Tendre. To me, it highlighted the ongoing fascination, or perhaps more accurately obsession, with being seen as ‘fashionable’ both at home and across The Channel, which is an idea that is ever-present today.
From there, we were delighted to receive a presentation from Photography Curator and Instagram-enthusiast Terence Pepper and former MA Documenting Fashion student Grace Lee who individually boast a huge wealth of knowledge about all-things sixties. Terence ran us through each photo, advertisement and magazine in such detail that for a brief moment we too were transported to the photoshoot, soirée or city being discussed. What’s more, we had the unexpected pleasure of meeting Pattie Boyd, whose sister Jenny Boyd was mentioned above, and who had an incredibly successful modelling career, gracing countless covers of Vogue and inspiring many a Beatles song with her then-beau George Harrison.
Situated à deux pas from London Bridge Station and Borough Market, it makes for a wonderful mid-morning viewing before a spot of lunch at one of the many fabulous food stalls and restaurants nearby.
Helen Levitt’s (1913-2009) photography presents life on the streets of her native New York from the 1930s to 1990s. The current exhibition of her work at The Photographers’ Gallery in London gives insight on a world of charm and character often overlooked in a time and place associated with hardship.
What struck me about many of the photographs in the exhibition was the street style they showed, particularly of 1940s New York, and how this style seemed to embody the ease and coolness of residents whilst also creating a protective armour that shielded them from potential harm.
The first image I have featured exudes glamour (Fig. 1). The woman stands powerfully in the centre of the frame, her large hairdo and statement fur coat making her appear more a fashion model than everyday resident. She turns her head away from the camera, nonchalant despite her bold presence. The photograph might be a snapshot, but something in the woman’s pose implies a knowledge that she is being photographed. She wants to appear powerfully glamourous. Behind her, in a storefront window, is a sign for spaghetti being sold for 25 cents. The spaghetti sign grounds the image. The woman is in her local area, and Levitt chooses to show us those surroundings rather than strategically shooting a more glamourous background to suit the look of the woman.
In this image I see optimism for the beginning of a new decade that this woman seems determined to succeed in. However, the fur coat with its strong shoulder pads also suggests protection, as if the woman is cocooning herself in a thick wall of fur to defend herself from the harsh realities of the world she faces. We lose all sense of the woman’s proportions beneath the heavy coat. She is emboldened by the layers of clothing she has ensconced herself in.
The second photograph is as glamourous as the first (Fig. 2). A couple stand together, woman leaning on man, both impeccably dressed. Levitt has captured the woman mid-speech, and two more women are walking across the scene from the left-hand side. This all comes together to present a far more snapshot-like image than the first.
The man’s oversized zoot suit, paired with hat, sunglasses, and loosely held cigarette, all contribute to create an image of effortlessness but also serve as a kind of armour, similar to the fur coat of the woman in the first image. The shoulder pads and loose suit trousers conceal the shape of his body, and the sunglasses restrict the expression that can be gleaned from his facial features.
The woman’s casual pose leaning against the man at first suggests ease and comfort. However, a layer of defence can also be seen in the sharp angle of her elbow, pointed out towards the street on her exposed side.
The final image I would like to discuss perhaps best highlights the way fashion served as protective armour in 1940s New York (Fig. 3). The man facing the camera stands in a striped suit, hands clasped in front of him, fedora casting a shadow across his forehead. What is most notable about the man’s outfit is its bold use of pattern. A striped suit is paired with a checked shirt and graphic tie. The clash of patterns reveals the man’s confidence styling himself, and his confidence asserting his place with striking visual presence.
Beside the man stands a far less extravagantly dressed individual. We only see his back, but can see he has removed his jacket and stands in a t-shirt, the shape of his shoulder blades showing through the fabric. This figure, next to the powerful stance of the suited man, becomes a figure of vulnerability. The composition almost gives the impression we are seeing two sides of the same man; the confident figure who faces the world, and the softer side of himself that cannot be fully revealed to the camera. A child in the window of the building looks down on the man who faces away from us, adding to the sense that this lack of layers of clothing is a childlike kind of vulnerability.
‘Helen Levitt: In The Street’ is on show at The Photographers’ Gallery until 13th Feb 2022.
On Wednesday, we went on our long-anticipated Documenting Fashion excursion to Guildhall Art Gallery’s new exhibition, Noël Coward: Art & Style. The exhibition, that opened on June 14 and will run until late December, offers a behind-the-curtain view into the glamorous world of prolific British playwright and ‘Renaissance man’ Noël Coward.
As a gay man from a working-class background, he was an outsider to his environment in many ways, and as a result constructed his image meticulously. In both his personal life and on stage, he strove for a luxurious kind of ‘playful glamour’ and Guildhall Art Gallery thus curates a striking display of Coward’s rich visual realm.
Structured loosely chronologically, we are taken on an intimate journey through Noël Coward’s life. The exhibition greets us with the playwright’s famous fashion trademark: the silk dressing gown. Tied unusually – as he always did – to the side, the mannequin poses nonchalantly with hand-in-pocket. The other respectably gloved hand holds a long cigarette holder. This exhibit presents such an evocative quality of Coward: the man who was ‘determined to travel through life first class’.
We are invited to examine an array of Coward’s pristinely preserved makeup tools and behind-the-scenes sketches of the costume design for iconic stage songs such as ‘Dance Little Lady’ from This Year of Grace (1928). Another section of the exhibition showcases black and white photographs of Coward with stars like Marlene Dietrich and Lauren Bacall, emblems of Hollywood glamour during his time in America.
A particularly striking element of the exhibition was the exhibition’s evocative display of clothing. On a raised semi-circular platform a white satin bias-cut evening dress with a white silk belt is displayed, that drapes gracefully to the floor. The neckline is decorated with a delicate artificial gardenia. This is a modern reconstruction of the dress that Gertrude Lawrence wore in Act I of Private Lives (1930) originally designed by British couturier Edward Henry Molyneux. The backdrop is a deep, midnight blue backlit art deco-style panel; the colour and lighting seems to accentuate the cool, bewitching, and glamorous aura of the dress. With the mannequin being physically raised on the platform, it evokes a sense of grandeur and celebrity.
Another experimental display of dress is a dark red chiffon dress with taffeta ruffles designed by Sir Norman Bishop Hartnell, a designer who worked often for Noël Coward. On a seventeenth-century Queen Anne chaise longue in a dusky pink velvet, the dress is draped, as if it still holds the memory of being worn on a reclining, celebrity body.
His luxury image translated into all aspects of his life, and Art & Style shows a section of the ostentatious antique furniture that adorned his homes. In his later life he moved to Jamaica, a country he felt great love towards, and began to paint landscapes of the country – a hobby into which the exhibition provides a personal peek.
A final section of the exhibition displays contemporary dress designs inspired by Coward and his world, by American designer Anna Sui. It bids us farewell with a final room that play videos of his performances, and even personal home videos of him and his friends.
Noël Coward: Art & Style presents us with the opulent chicness of the inter-war years of celebrity glamour, as well as a never-seen-before glimpse into the visual artefacts of his personal life.
Entry to the exhibition is free.
By Kathryn Reed
Noel Coward, Another Magazine, https://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/2203/noel-coward
Global beauty industry sales hit $500 billion in 2019, and consistently outperformed other areas of fashion retail throughout the pandemic. It can seem as though this economic force appeared overnight, but make-up artist Lisa Eldridge’s BBC Two series, Make-up: A Glamorous History, debunks this notion by tracing the history of make-up in Britain in three parts. In each episode, she highlights an important moment in beauty history: ‘Georgian dandies, demure Victorians and decadent flappers.’
Each episode of the series sees Eldridge make up a model in the style of the period, where possible using products made according to original recipes. In some cases – notably, with the toxic lead used by the Georgians to create white pigment for face powder – this requires the help of a specialist and protective equipment. In others, Eldridge is able to knock up batches of luxurious Georgian facial cleanser and subtle Victorian lip tint with nothing more than a single tabletop hob and some muslin. Eldridge also speaks to historians to dig deeper into the trends of each era, looking at the women and men considered to be the beauty influencers of their time and what this says about each society. She looks at extant objects, including posters, magazines and compacts, to get an understanding of the marketing and retail of beauty products in each era.
While researching Georgian beauty ideals, Eldridge meets with Royal Academy of Arts Curator of Works on Paper Annette Wickham. Their discussion of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ paintings of society women – including actresses, singers and courtesans – reveals the origins of the ‘beauty influencer’ system that is so culturally and economically significant today. The boom of print culture at this time allowed the images of these women to be disseminated in newspapers and as prints, displayed in alehouses, coffee shops and in the street-facing windows of dedicated print shops. The women who featured in these images encouraged their dissemination and even staged publicity ploys: Wickham tells the story of Kitty Fisher, a prominent courtesan who deliberately fell from her horse in Hyde Park to ensure that her name and picture would appear in the newspapers. Maintaining a high profile aligned with beauty brought these women financial security in the form of wealthy husbands. Today, being recognised for beauty (or, often, excellent make-up artistry) can bring financial gains in the form of brand partnerships and advertising revenue, highlighting the significant potential outcomes of effective use of make-up throughout history.
The episode that focuses on Victorian beauty reveals the secrecy around make-up during this period. Just as today the perfect ‘no-makeup make-up look’ is a holy grail for many, the Victorians went to great lengths to appear ‘naturally’ beautiful. Make-up masqueraded as medicine in published recipes and advertisements, adding a further layer of artifice to what was already perceived as immoral trickery. But such efforts were necessary: the inherent sinfulness of make-up was enshrined in a law that enabled police officers to arrest women if they were suspected of wearing make-up. The argument was that if a woman was so depraved as to wear make-up, she might also be guilty of illegally selling sex. This puritanical preference for bare – and, notably, pale white – skin fed into the Victorian colonial narrative in its parallel suggestion that a person’s ‘natural’ appearance was an indication of their human worth. The quest for pallor meant that there was even a vogue for ‘tuberculosis chic’, prefiguring the trend for ‘heroin chic’ that would appear a century later. Prominent beauties, including Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, also known as Madame X, paid the equivalent of thousands of pounds in today’s money for a form of semi-permanent make-up known as enamelling. The treatment comprised an aggressive exfoliation before a thick layer of white paint – meant to fill in fine lines and cover blemishes – was applied, then drawn over with blue veins. Some of the dangerous attitudes that drove these extremes – especially those around deviations in skin tone or texture from a ‘natural’ yet idealised beauty – are undoubtedly still present in some form in the global beauty industry today.
According to the third and final episode in the series, the 1920s was the era in which the beauty industry as we know it today was born. A desire among women to break away from social ideals eventually led to the acceptance of a full face of make-up in public, as well as bobbed hair and new behaviours. This change was inextricable from the rise of cinema, which disseminated moving and still images of new beauty ideals – women were necessarily heavily made up under studio lights – and provided the technological advancements in make-up that allowed for its commercialisation. Eldridge traces the rise of modern foundations from their inception in Max Factor’s stage make-up. New markets also appeared – make-up was no longer just for the wealthy – and elaborate packaging encouraged further consumption. Celebrity endorsements continued to be important, but now famous faces could be tied to brand names, for example, Josephine Baker’s many beauty lines. Eldridge introduces a piece from her personal collection: a Josephine Baker and Flamand compact cuff. The glamorous black and gold bracelet can be opened to reveal powder and a mirror, allowing for regular, public reapplication. While it’s more unusual to find cross-pollination like this today, likely owing to the cost that would be involved for the manufacturer as well as the consumer, make-up brands continue to place a high importance on packaging. This is increasingly true as consumers look for sustainable (yet still aesthetically pleasing) options.
Overall, the series makes it clear that, while the beauty industry as we know it today exists in an intensely commercialised form, it has been an important part of society for centuries, functioning in broadly similar ways. While trends have changed according to the mores of the day, some form of artifice (either highly decorative or more ‘natural’) has always been the goal. Make-up has always represented a form of self-expression: it offers a means of communicating wealth, health or alternative values. Furthermore, for viewers who may be accustomed to buying their make-up branded and boxed from the beauty aisle, the series reminds us that make-up is an art like any other, with the body as its canvas. The medium and the tools that can be used as make-up aren’t necessarily always labelled as such. Experimentation and play are therefore encouraged, and a less exclusive concept of beauty can emerge.
During the wintery months of 1969, something unusual happened in the Cornish seaside village of St. Agnes. That is, a group of eccentric, unemployed, and, crucially, strangely dressed ‘beatniks’ arrived and began living in the off-season holiday cottages. This occurrence was notable enough to warrant coverage by local television station Westward Television. In this twelve-minute piece of black and white archival footage, Del Cooper interviews both the ‘suspicious’ local residents and the ‘unconventional’ beatniks, capturing a unique moment of fashion microhistory.
Before delving into analysis, it is important to first set this film in a temporal and geographic context. Alternative style was not necessarily new: indeed, by 1969, a variety of subcultural styles and countercultural thought existed in the UK. Since the mid-1950s, Jazz Fiends, Beatniks and West End Boys, stylistically spearheaded by West Indian immigrants, challenged the constrictive post-war aesthetic of adulthood. In the 1960s, Mods and Skinheads similarly used their dress to be socially disruptive. And while Beatniks are not as readily associated with 1960s subculture as Mods, in June 1965, beat poet Allen Ginsberg nevertheless drew a crowd of 7,000 to his four-hour-long poetry reading.Yet, while counterculture and alternative style was a real possibility in this era, visible street style was often limited to London and other cultural hubs. So, when a group of fashionably long-haired Beatniks arrived in a village at the extremity of southwestern England, they signified something new, and disrupted the social ‘norm’.
Analysing this film through the lens of dress and fashion, therefore, is extremely valuable. It is the Beatniks’ dress that is the main disturbance to St. Agnes. Their unusual and sometimes flamboyant style is a stark juxtaposition against the conservative villagers and the local television reporter. This non-fiction film is illustrative of an important representation of fashion on a micro-level, separate to the world of high fashion and London.
If, as fashion scholar Carlo Marco Belfanti argues, fashion is defined by ‘an increasing passion for change and an insatiable search for novelty’, there is nothing more novel than the juxtaposition of a trendy subcultural dress with an underpopulated tourist destination in winter. Accordingly, the film opens with a static shot of Del Cooper standing against a backdrop of usual activity in St. Agnes. He seems to embody the orthodox, respectable and masculine. His grey hair is cut short and only slightly windswept, and he is dressed conservatively in a monochrome polo-neck jumper and clean-cut wool jacket. Behind him, a woman in a headscarf exits Webb’s Store, and a Jacob’s van pulls up across the road to unload a delivery of cream crackers. This scene of total normalcy, however, is soon unsettled by subversive dress. As the camera pans right, the viewer’s eye is drawn to a group of women and men making their way through the village. They are wearing loose-fitting, layered garments, accessorised with patterned scarves and a random assortment of hats; all of them with genderbending long hair. At this moment, Cooper, addressing the camera, answers the unspoken question: ‘Well, of course, it all depends on what you mean by Beatniks. If you mean young people with long hair and rather unconventional clothes, then the Beatniks are here, in St. Agnes, right now.’ A group who have fashioned themselves so conspicuously, their desire for novelty and change is palpable.
It is important to note Del Cooper’s definition of ‘Beatnik’. There are only two elements of this definition: their novel clothing and their long hair. While their actual behaviour is mentioned in the film – sharing money and belongings, strict vegetarianism, and inclination to burn joss-sticks in the local pubs – it is their dress that makes them Beatniks, including their decision to grow their hair long, a body modification that clearly communicates to other human beings that they are unconventional.
As the camera follows the Beatniks through the village, a man and a woman lead the group, five or six paces ahead. The man wears dark, flared jeans, pointed heeled boots, and a sparsely buttoned-up patterned shirt over a ruffled scarf. A cropped fur coat shrouds this outfit, that he wears undone with his hands resting casually in the pockets. His hair is slightly longer than shoulder length, accessorised by an askew cowboy-style hat. The woman is casually dressed in all black: a loose-fitting dress that reaches her ankles and leather boots. Over this, she wears an oversized, lightweight jacket and a carelessly knotted scarf around her neck. Her long hair flows behind her as she walks.
Following behind them are six more long-haired members of the group. Another woman in all black pushes a pram while four men walk alongside her, all in flared trousers and casual shoes. Their winter coats are a trench coat with the belt hanging loose at the back, a hooded duffle, and two double-breasted peacoats, respectively. One man wears a beret, while another wears a Russian Cossack-style fur hat, and they have on a hodgepodge of scarves. Another woman brings up the rear, dressed in a more masculine style, with loose-fitting trousers, a shirt, and a chunky waistcoat. She does not wear her coat but drags it along in her left hand, with a lit cigarette in her right.
What about these people’s dress draws them together? They are undoubtedly a collective, with loose and layered flares, long hair, and patterned scarves. Crucially, these clothes must be thrown on their bodies carelessly, unbuttoned, with pockets to rest the hands. Casualness defines this style tribe. Yet their clothes incorporate a range of cuts, styles, and materials, from paisley cotton scarves to striped woollen scarves, from fur coats to duffel coats – a nod to the growing interest in second-hand clothing in the late 1960s. This exemplifies the paradox at the heart of fashion. As Sheila Cliffe has put it, ‘humans have a need to be both a member of a group, which provides security and also distinguish themselves from the group and assert their individuality’. This is highlighted through the community’s differences in dress and fashioning themselves – they accessorise with individual styles of hat, scarf, and sometimes coat.
This casual, loose, and layered style would not be nearly as striking if it were not juxtaposed with the relatively plain and certainly traditional style exhibited by the long-term residents of St. Agnes. Yet, as the film begins to interview the locals, it is clear that the exhibition of dress is of far less importance to the filmmaker. While the camera angles ensured to include plenty of full-body shots of the unusual Beatnik outfits, the shots of the interviewees are only static close-ups. And to a degree, this is understandable: if fashion is novel, in constant change, and both individual and group-based, the St. Agnes citizens are not particularly fashionable.
Six different locals are interviewed, and either express distaste or indifference to the unorthodox new arrivals. In a few minutes, viewers meet a range of characters: a woman, without make-up, her white hair tucked into a dark fur pillbox hat, and a paisley scarf knotted around her neck; a middle-aged man in a wool coat and trilby hat; a young woman, bare-faced with a messy bob haircut; a woman with dark hair tied up in a loose bun, both make-up and accessory free; an old lady in a fur bonnet; a local councillor with neat curls and cats-eye spectacles; and a man in a stiff-collared coat, white shirt and tie. Dress, at its most fundamental, can signify ambivalences inherent in humans. Here, the functional and stylish – but not particularly trendy – fur hats help to signify a woman’s age. Likewise, the local councillor’s well-ordered spectacles and hair signify her – relatively – public-facing occupation. The man in a coat, shirt and tie suggests professionality. Most fundamentally, the men have short hair while the women have long. Therefore, while not everyone self-fashions to be novel, trendy, or individual, the interviews with the Cornish people signify that on some level, everyone self-fashions to reveal a subconscious element of themselves.
As the film moves to interview the Beatniks, however, deeper elements of the inner self are visually expressed. As Daniel Miller argues, dress can often be used ‘as an appropriate exploration of who one really is’. The television reporter, Cooper, seems quite aware of this innate connection. While interviewing Toni, a single mother who wears a string of sparse beads wrapped around her neck twice, reminiscent of hippie love-beads, and a black button-down blouse with delicate embroidery and slightly puffed sleeves, he asks, ‘The people of St. Agnes are very suspicious of you because you’re very unconventional in your dress. Are you also unconventional in your morals?’.
Additionally, the non-fiction news segment shows snippets of the travelling artists undertaking their crafts and passions. We see people engraving slates, painting, forging jewellery, and playing music. And, in line with Miller’s theory, each person’s dress seems to reflect their own inner talent. The jewellery makers wear thick metal rings on nearly every finger, and the performer dresses the most flamboyantly, in a beret, with long hair and white-rimmed sunglasses – impractically worn indoors. Not only do these accessories help these artists with their self-expression, but they also embody a further definition of fashion. That is, prioritising form over function. It is certainly not practical to wear so many rings, nor are sunglasses fulfilling a practical function when worn indoors. These Beatniks are using dress and accessories purely to portray themselves how they desire.
And as the short film comes to a close, an atmospheric shot pans out of shabbily, artistically dressed Beatniks, listening to a poem being read aloud against the crashing waves of Cornwall. Miller’s concluding argument seems apt: a study of clothing should evoke feelings, both tactile and emotional. Perhaps, then, in the bitter winter air, their layered outfits, hats and scarves are keeping them warm in the wintery air. Or perhaps a breeze blows right through the loose-fitting dresses. Perhaps their chunky, hand-knitted woollen jumpers are itchy. Perhaps they enjoy feeling the sea breeze in their long hair.
The film ends, panning in on the waves after Del Cooper makes his closing statement:
What bothers the 4,000 odd residents of this charming, attractive and rather conventional seaside village is that the community with unconventional clothes and rather unorthodox ways will, as they put it, give the village a bad name and drive away the holiday visitors. They want them to go. But whether you call them free-thinking artists, Beatniks, or the vanguard of a new movement to make England great again, they’re here to stay. And St. Agnes will never ever be quite the same again.
Here, the importance of fashion and dress is notable: this strangely dressed yet fashionable community has altered the microhistory of St. Agnes.
By Kathryn Reed
A Beatnik Community in St Agnes. Presented by Del Cooper. BFI (South West Film & Television Archive), 1969. https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-a-beatnik-community-in-st-agnes-1969-online
Arnold, Rebecca, Fashion: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2009)
Belfanti, Carlo Marco, ‘Was Fashion a European Invention?’ in Journal of Global History 3 (2008)
Cliffe, Sheila, ‘Think Fashion or Tradition?’, The Social Life of Kimono: Japanese Fashion Past and Present. (London, 2018)
Davis, Fred, Fashion, Culture and Identity (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995)
Donnelly, Mark, ‘Wholly Communion: Truths, Histories, and the Albert Hall Poetry Reading’, Journal of Cinema and Media 52 1 (2011), pp. 128-140
Eicher, Joanne B., and Roach-Higgins, Mary Ellen, ‘Definition and Classification of Dress,’ in Ruth Barnes and Joanne B. Eicher, Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning in Cultural Contexts (Oxford, 1993)
Miller, Daniel, ‘Why Clothing Is Not Superficial,’ in Stuff (Cambridge: Polity, 2010)
Tulloch, Carol, ‘Rebel Without a Pause: Black Street Style & Black Designers’ in Juliet Ash and Elizabeth Wilson (eds.) Chic Thrills: A Fashion Reader (Berkeley, 1993)
Welters, Linda, ‘The Beat Generation Subcultural Style’, in Linda Welters and Patricia A. Cunningham (eds.) Twentieth Century American Fashion (London, 2005)