Category Archives: Review

Beyond the Buckle: Manolo Blahnik at the Wallace Collection


Blue striped wall with gold framed pictures of women and a bright pink decorated show beneath
Image C/O Maia Heegaard

The relationship between art and fashion is fraught with complexities, but the two disciplines have always drawn heavily from one another, in ways both synergistic and hostile. At the Wallace Collection’s recent exhibition An Enquiring Mind: Manolo Blahnik at the Wallace Collection, we are presented with a glistening example of the collaborative nature of art and fashion at its best—a clear representation of how art can inform the fashion design process. Juxtaposing some of the designer’s most beautiful shoe creations with prominent works of art by Boucher, Rubens, Titian, and Gainsborough, all within in the architecturally exquisite setting of Hertford House, there is an obvious decadence to the exhibit that is impossible to not enjoy on an aesthetic level.

The Wallace Collection is rich and vast on its own—difficult to digest with a single visit. Upon walking in, I was pleasantly struck by the degree to which Blahnik’s shoes blended seamlessly with the collection—nothing felt forced, out of place. It was as though the shoes were a permanent part of the collection, echoing not only the paintings on the walls, but the gilding of a cabinet, the richness of a velvet window curtain. Each room was organized thematically to display a different historical moment or story, from the dimly lit baroque, full of velvet and brocade, to “Avant-Garde Fashion.” For fans of fashion, the exhibit offers clear insight into Blahnik’s creative process—the designer credits the museum’s collection as a source of design inspiration, and from early sketches to the final product it is clear how he has brought the fantastical aspects of the art into the realm of the living.

Light pink shoes with flowers in glass case beneath blue striped wall and painting of woman in pink dress
Image C/O Olivia Smales

Nestled between the paintings and gilded clocks and vases, I found myself engaging with the shoes as art objects rather than wearable items—objects of beauty, much like the paintings on the walls. Conceptions of art versus craft are challenged, and a dialogue between the two prompts the viewer to question what makes an object “art” to begin with. What are the difference between the traditional ‘high brow’ mediums of painting and sculpture, and where does fashion fall?

Placed within delicate domed glass cases, the shoes feel all the more at home in their rich and fantastical setting, precious objects to be protected from the corruptions of the external world. Despite this layer of glass between object and viewer, the shoes imbue the space with a certain unexpected intimacy. At a time in which fashion exhibitions are often sensationalized and overcrowded, it is refreshing to be able to get close to the shoes, to examine the subtle relationships between the objects and their surroundings, the details of their meticulous design.

Beyond crafting a dialogue, the shoes and paintings bring new meanings to one another, notably a pair of infamous Manolo’s—pink shoes designed for Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette. The shoes are placed beneath Fragonard’s The Swing (1767) in which a woman kicks off a pair of candy-floss pink heels that are remarkably similar. The viewer is immediately transported to the realm of the painting, able to connect via this real world object, and simultaneously better able to understand how Blahnik may have conceptualized these shoes to begin with. The same shoes exhibited within the sterile confines of a luxury store might appear as simple objects for purchase by the privileged, drawing attention to the importance of context when it comes to all works of art (called to mind are Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, and those same boxes on a supermarket shelf…).

Mint green shoes in glass case with feathers and jewels on dark green table
Images C/O Olivia Smales

While perhaps a stereotypically feminine object, the shoes crystallized the presence of women, both within the collection and throughout history. I found myself noticing prominent female figures in the works of art around me, and considering the place of women across history, from the Marquesses who once inhabited Hertford House to the largely female crowd viewing the shoes around me.

We all share in the experience of putting on shoes. Whether or not they are as decadent as those designed by Blahnik, there is a familiarity to the object, and a desire to know who stood in these shoes before, and to be like them. The exhibition offers something to art and fashion fans alike, teaching art fans about a revolutionary designer, and bringing in a crowd who may otherwise have missed out on the Wallace collection’s treasures.




The Met’s Camp: Notes on Fashion Exhibition Review

This summer I attended the Met’s Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibition. The hype surrounding this annual exhibition is initially generated from the Met Gala held in May, which officially celebrates its opening and is considered one of the most important fashion events of the year. After seeing pictures of models, celebrities and designers processing up the famous museum stairs, I was excited to see such eccentric and elaborate outfits in person. I was also looking forward to gaining a deeper understanding of the term ‘camp’ which I recognized had a deeper meaning and history than I was aware of.

Camp was based off of Susan Sontag’s 1964 “Notes on Camp,” which brought the term into mainstream culture. Likewise to Sontag, the curators of the museum sought to explore the various connotations of the word and its affect upon culture and fashion. Camp is a term often synonymous with LGBT culture, however it can refer to anything theatrical, artificial, excessive, effeminate and much more. Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute, states that the aim of the exhibition was to generate more questions than answers, as camp is incredibly difficult to define. Through basing the exhibition around Sontag’s essay, I found that it gave the audience a lens in which to view the objects and items of clothing. In the first room, Sontag’s “58 principles of camp” is outlined and details how terms such as nostalgia, irony, pastiche and parody are used to describe camp. I thought that this was a great way to prepare the viewers for the sensory overload of what was to come.

Two mannequins in exhibition, one wearing a purple, fluffy ensemble with butterflies. The other wearing a black dress.
Jeremy Scott (American, born 1975) for House of Moschino (Italian, founded 1983). Ensemble, spring/summer 2018. Courtesy of Moschino. Author’s own image.

Camp was divided into two sections, with the first looking at the origins of camp and the second showing how it is reflected in fashion. I thought the chronological theme was extremely helpful in enhancing the viewer’s understanding of how the camp sensibility has pervaded throughout history and into modern day culture. Bolton argues that the reemergence of camp in the present decade is not surprising as it comes about during periods of social, economic and political change. This in turn led me to think about how certain exhibitions are chosen by curators during the time when the public imagination needs them most.

The visitor is immediately confronted by the bright pink walls of the exhibition, which welcomes them into the loud and excessive world of the camp aesthetic.

The first room details how camp came about in order to challenge conventional notions of beauty, through adopting a daring and bold style. In the first few rooms, objects from Versailles, Louis XIV and Oscar Wilde show how an increasingly theatrical style developed, which valued the nineteenth century ideal of male beauty. This emphasizes how camp is found not just in fashion, but also in a variety of other forms that span different centuries and geographies.

I thought that the most impressive room of the exhibition was a vast space filled with varying glass cases that contained different examples of camp clothing. The indefinable nature of camp is exhibited by the voice-over of a variety of quotes in this room, which are narrated by different celebrities and important figures; for example, Phoebe Philo for Céline recounts a quote by Mark Booth that “Camp is mock luxurious.”

Dark exhibition room with two levels of colorful boxes with mannequins.
View of the “Camp: Notes On Fashion” Exhibition, Metropolitan Museum of Art NYC. Author’s own image.

Camp is defined by artifice and exaggeration, to do with style and not content that is expressed in fashion through colour, patterns, shapes, ornament and materials. Below are some pictures from my visit that I thought captured this:

Mannequin wearing black dress with pink bow wrapped around the waist.
Jeremy Scott (American, born 1975) for House of Moschino (Italian, founded 1983). Dress, spring/summer 2017. Courtesy of Moschino. Author’s own image.
Mannequin wearing a tight body suit with covers of Vogue magazine printed on the fabric.
Sequined Vogue–Sequined “Vogue Magazine” Jumpsuit from Gianni Versace S/S 1991. Author’s own image.
Mannequin wearing light pink dress with layers of tulle.
Gown from Giambattista Valli Haute Couture. Author’s own image.

Overall, I found that the representation of camp within fashion was one of excess, which was shown through the overload of sequins, bows and feathers on the items. The exhibition was an immersive one, asking the viewer to consider their own conceptions of camp and how this can be challenged. I thought that the curators successfully showed how camp is present in our culture and everyday lives as it embraces both high art, popular culture and a variety of other opposing features.


The Personal is Defiantly Political in MoMu’s Latest Show of Transnational Textiles at Texture Kortrijk



Poster for exhibit with image of girl partially covered and accompanying text
Campaign Image ‘Textile as Resistance’ (c) Photo: Mashid Mohadjerin, Graphic design: Jelle Jespers

Textile as Resistance: The Power of Fabrics Without Slogans is the latest offering in MoMu Antwerp’s external programme of events whilst the fashion museum is closed for renovation and development. It is currently on display on the upmost floor of Texture Kortrijk, a fitting guest location given that this innovative textile museum is devoted to the international networks of exchange and influence that lie behind the local production of flax and linen in the Flemish province of West Flanders. Nestled on the River Lys, Kortrijk is home to linen damasks – originating, of course, from the Syrian capital Damascus – where locals pioneered a particular technique of production in the late 15th century, with a signature trademark of symmetrical patterns depicting hunting scenes, historical battles and biblical stories. Positioned at an apposite local/global intersection, the exhibition Textile as Resistance weaves together geography – telling stories of the land, nationality – telling stories of the nation, and identity – telling stories of the self, all narrated through the powerful storytelling medium of cloth.

Image of gallery interior with picture of woman hanging and pictures on walls
Textile as Resistance at Texture Kortrijk, (c) MoMu Antwerp, Photo: Stany Dederen
Three female dolls in textile posed on white floor with pots in background
Palestinian dolls in traditional festive dress made at the Ein El-Hilweh camp where 64 women are trained in this technique in order to preserve the Palestinian embroidery and heritage. Beirut, Lebanon, 2019, (c) Photo: Mashid Mohadjerin

Fashion and textiles are, of course, emphatically transnational phenomena, which operate across rather than within hermetically-sealed borders. We know that clothing is transformed by the different pairs of hands through which it passes –acquiring new values, serving different purposes, bearing the biographical traces of both maker and wearer. It is precisely this mobility – not least the privileged potential that fabric occupies as the connective tissue between individuals, communities, cultures and nations – which the exhibition curators take as their starting point. Whilst photographer Mashid Mohadjerin (b. Iran, 1976) and journalist Samira Bendadi (b. Morocco, 1966) conceived of the exhibition in Antwerp, the compelling stories of migration and diversity that it narrates expand far beyond the borders of Europe, unravelling identities and histories that stretch back and forth across the world. The curators were concerned, first and foremost, with the messages that textiles embody and disseminate as an insidious form of resistance – one that is frequently mobilised by women in response to war and crisis. The exhibition thus encapsulates Shahidha Bari’s acknowledgment in Dressed: The Secret Life of Clothes (2019) that clothing the body is a means of ‘turning out’, of mobilising a critical engagement with our surrounding world. It is a pertinent topic, painfully resonant amidst the European migrant crisis, which has witnessed more than 4,000 deaths in 2018 alone. Textiles as Resistance interrogates how clothing and fashion can respond to social and cultural displacement, reassuring individuals who are in search of their identities and a communal sense of belonging.


Image of gallery interior with photos hanging from ceiling and on walls
Textile as Resistance at Texture Kortrijk, (c) MoMu Antwerp, Photo: Stany Dederen
Image of street in Beirut with portraits of man and flags on old buildings
Street scene depicting two portraits of the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Beirut, Lebanon, 2019, (c) Photo: Mashid Mohadjerin

What is made clear from the outset is that neither identity, nor textiles, can be easily reduced to a singular narrative. Nor can they be straightforwardly mapped onto a spinning globe – especially when considered in relation to globally distributed production and consumption networks, the lasting effects of colonialism, imperialism and decolonisation, and asylum and migration in both the past and present. The large-scale map that viewers are presented with on entering the exhibition makes this point palpably clear. Antwerp is at the epicentre. From here, needles threaded with red cotton have been stitched across the map, drawing lines to locations as far afield as Nigeria, Morocco, Iran and Mexico. Russia appears vast, whilst the USA is far smaller than cartography normally affords it.  Geography is presented as a fictitious retelling. By logical conclusion, the viewer is encouraged to recognise that using geographical boundaries as a tool to analyse religious, cultural and national identities remains ceaselessly problematic. It resonates with the remarks of geographers Martin Lewis and Karen Wigan in their seminal text The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography (1996):  ‘we talk of African wildlife as if it constituted a distinct assemblage of animals’ and yet countries and continents do not neatly denote biological and cultural groupings. Similarly, the mapping of nations encourages a false understanding of the world as a jigsaw of discreet places that can be examined in isolation. African wax print cloth, which originated in Asia inspired by Indonesian Batik and was only introduced to the African continent in the late 19th century by the Dutch company Vlisco, is a case in point. The truth is that identity is situational; it involves both insiders and outsiders to the group, acquires new meanings as it travels, and remains in an inconclusive state of continually ‘becoming’.

Dilapidated staircase with wires and old advertisement on building
Shatila Refugee Camp, Lebanon, 2019, (c) Photo: Mashid Mohadjerin

Human stories, as the exhibition makes clear, often have the greatest currency, particularly those that give individuals the greatest prominence, both physically and emotionally. One of the subjects given a voice is Samira Salah (b. what was then Palestine, now Israel, 1945), who questions: ‘What does it mean to be a Palestinian today? My daughter has French nationality and my other daughter has German nationality because their husbands have these nationalities […] Nationality is not identity. Ultimately, the Palestinian issue is not a matter for Palestinians alone. It is a universal and human issue. You don’t have to be a Palestinian to embrace the Palestinian cause’. It is the process of enquiry that appears most cathartic in many of the stories narrated and is rooted in the painstaking processes of sewing, embroidering and textile printing, which bring makers and wearers together in intimate dialogue that transcends religious, cultural and national borders.  Another story shared is that of Zena Sabbagh (b. Syria, 1971), who lives in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, where she has transformed her living room into a meeting place for women to socialise, sew and share stories. ‘I don’t like the word ‘refugee’’, she explains.  ‘Refugees are people who have been forced to leave their country. But why not meet and get to know the others? I’m against borders. I’m for getting people to meet.’ Many of these tantalising snapshots of lives lived in the face of adversity are left deliberately untied. Whilst the exhibition catalogue provides further insight, the fragmented method of display fits the disjointed stories and memories that are recalled by the subjects, prompting speculation on the part of the viewer, who may feel inclined to fill in the gaps with his or her own thoughts, feelings and lived experiences of identity. It is this humanitarian aspect of the exhibition that resonates so profoundly with the viewer: these are human stories, and it is the very personal relationship that we have to clothing – our intimate knowledge of how it feels on our skin, how it moves on our bodies, and how it connects us to other people and to the world at large that the curators so expertly tap into.  

Woman sitting at table outside cafe in colorful coat
Zolaykha Sherzad, Afghan-born designer wearing one of her native inspired coats. She deconstructs existing pieces and reunites the textiles into in new pieces that reflect on new perspectives and hopes for a better future. Paris, France, 2019, (c) Photo: Mashid Mohadjerin


Man in colorful jacket holding cane and wearing black shirt and hat with other men in colorful garments in background
African Fashion Weekend at the Meise Botanic Garden. Brussels, Belgium, 2019, (c) Photo: Mashid Mohadjerin

Textile as Resistance is a pivotal contribution to the fashion exhibition landscape in Europe, which emphasises non-Eurocentric narratives of fashion and clothing exchange. Belgium, like most European nations, has a chequered history of colonisation, decolonisation, asylum and migration, the ramifications of which are strongly felt in the postcolonial present. Exhibitions such as this, by inviting a diverse range of nationalities, cultures, ethnicities, identities and histories into the gallery space, provide a necessary voice and visibility to the lived experiences of Belgian’s immigrant population. As MoMu Director Kaat Debo explains, ‘Antwerp is home to more than 170 nationalities. 183 languages are spoken here. The exhibition is part of our mission to make MoMu meaningful for everyone and to enable social, aesthetic and personal change’. It is a perspective that underlines the importance of global perspectives in shaping local identities, whilst reiterating that fostering strong local roots is not in opposition to sharing an international outlook. Just as ‘national’ fashion cultures are always mediated by ‘international’ networks of exchange, Textiles as Resistance marks a systematic shift in museum curation to present histories of globalisation as truly histories of the globe, rather than continuing Eurocentric histories of the West.  The success of the exhibition will ultimately be measured in terms of its ability to attract a substantial number of new audiences from migration backgrounds into the museum, and for the stories articulated to have an impact long after the exhibition closes on 16th February 2020.

Woman in black garment and pink scarf with child in red jacket in front of graffiti covered staircase
Malak Bakoor, has her own embroidery workgroup involving Syrian women in Shatila Refugee Camp. Beirut, Lebanon, 2019, (c) Photo: Mashid Mohadjerin

Reviewed: Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art at the Barbican

Exhibition at the Barbican, a brown wall with many framed woodcuts and a vitrine with four carved masks.
Mexico City room at the Barbican, which lacked the “voom”. (author’s own image)

“I was kind of expecting more, va va voom.”

“There is va va, just no voom.”

I overheard this remark from a couple behind me, as I walked into another skeletal space that was part of the Barbican Art Gallery’s exhibit, Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art. Similar to me, those visitors were disenchanted by this exploration of Modern Art through nightlife, in cities such as Tehran, London, Mexico City, Berlin, and Ibadan, between the 1880s’-1960s’.

I previously went to the Barbican in 2017 to see Basquiat: Boom for Real. Similar to the artists and artworks featured in Into the Night, Jean-Michel Basquiat was deeply influenced by nightlife. At that exhibit, the clubs and streets of New York City radiated from the artworks and into the gallery space. But in comparison, the atmosphere of Into the Night was extremely muted.

Museum vitrine with carpet sample and pencil drawn curtain design.
Carpet sample and curtain design for Cabaret Fledermaus, 1907. Designed by Josef Hoffman.

Into the Night, begins in Vienna at Cabaret Fledermaus. The gallery space features posters, plans, designs, and decorative art objects from Fledermaus. The objects were sparsely spread out across the gallery on frozen grey walls and a blue display platform. The wall text said that Cabaret Fledermaus was a place where “‘[the] boredom’ of contemporary life would be replaced by the ‘ease of art and culture.’” I did not feel this when I walked around the gallery. Viewing objects such as the original curtain designs, a carpet sample, and some well-preserved posters felt more like observing specimens in a lab than experiencing “art and culture”. Cabarets and clubs are intrinsically and indubitably lively, but the Barbican failed to capture the conditions that these objects derived from, and the objects failed to capture the aura of their conditions. While the Barbican provided “recreations” of some cabarets and clubs in the lower gallery level, as Time Out critic Eddy Frankel noted, they felt static and disjoined from the original “exchange” between these places and Modern Art.

Film stills from Film Lumiere no 765,1- Danse serpentine [II], featuring Loïe Fuller by Austste and Louis Lumière, c. 1897-99.

When I entered the space that focused on American dancer Loïe Fuller’s contributions to the Folies-Bergere, I was mesmerized and captivated by Fuller’s movements and could feel her fill the room. The wall text said Fuller utilized costume and color as a means for experimenting with dance. As she twirled and swished in costumes painted in violet, red, and green on film color against the black and white film, you could see how modernism was moving forward from its grey past. Fuller’s costume and movements claimed the space of the Folies-Bergere. But more importantly, her work showed how Modern Art developed in clubs and cabarets because those spaces challenged artists to claim and refine their craft in an atmosphere that provided boundless empowerment and inspiration.

Except for a few notable rooms (New York City, Berlin, and the room dedicated to Loïe Fuller), Into the Night is an encyclopedic approach to exhibiting Modern Art’s relationship to clubs and cabarets, and ultimately fails to enhance a visitor’s understanding of this sacred relationship.


Frankel, Eddy, “Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art review.” Time Out London, 2019.

Miniskirts and Mods: A Review of the Mary Quant Retrospective

Museum exhibition, two mannequins wearing raincoats
Rainwear display, Mary Quant Retrospective, V&A, 2019. (all photos taken by Ali)

Mary Quant brought fun to fashion during the postwar era, a time when clothing rationing had just ended and Christian Dior was strangling women’s waistlines. Quant’s shop Bazaar was the headquarters of the Swinging Sixties, where one could buy miniskirts, neon tights, and psychedelic blouses. She wanted women to have fun again; her miniskirts liberated legs and allowed for dancing and her waterproof mascara held up in a walk through the rain. The V&A’s retrospective of Quant’s work takes viewers chronologically through her career, starting with her unassuming, yet innovative designs of the late 1950s and ending with a showcase of her global brand which produced cosmetics, lingerie, accessories. Although somewhat lacking in imagination, the exhibition proves that Quant’s designs allowed all kinds of women, not just wealthy ones, to incorporate imaginative designs into their wardrobes.

When you enter the exhibition, it’s not a blatantly colorful exhibition about the 1960s mod culture, but it is rather a slow burn that lingers on Quant’s somewhat conservative early designs. Meandering through a display of glass cases, we see that Quant slowly deconstructed fashion rules that existed in the 1950s. Quant did this carefully, as innocent wool pinafores and thick coat jackets with bright patterns dominate the first half of the exhibition. She started to create revolutionary designs by incorporating masculine traits into her fashions. Her use of ties and more shockingly trousers, are a signal of her journey into a completely new style.

Museum vitrine with three mannequins dressed in Mary Quant dresses and coats
Early Mary Quant Designs, Mary Quant Retrospective, V&A, 2019.

The second floor more clearly conveys the fun and light-heartedness one might expect of Quant’s mod designs. Set in a brightly-lit, white arena, Quant’s brightly colored designs pop and are strikingly contemporary. Glittering tartans, pinstriped raincoats, and crocheted frocks prove not only Quant’s talent in working with many fabrics and techniques, but also her seemingly endless creativity. I found myself making a mental-shopping list of what items I would happily wear on a daily basis (a pink sailor dress and monochrome PVC clutch, please). I could hear people of all ages around me doing something similar, proving Quant’s ability to make her clothes universally attractive by combining comfortability and bold patterns.

Five mannequins in museum wearing mini skirt dresses
Iterations of the miniskirt, Mary Quant Retrospective, V&A, 2019.

There is a clear attempt throughout the show to breathe life into these clothes, many of which are paralyzed by rigid mannequins. The majority of outfits had an accompanying text panel that explained who owned the garment, why they chose it, and how they wore it. There were also numerous photographs behind the outfits, showing how models or regular women moved and posed in Quant’s clothes. These curatorial efforts suggest that these clothes were not designed to be shown on stiff mannequins, but were designed for walking, skipping, and dancing. Some mannequins strike outlandish poses, but there is an overall dullness that hangs over the exhibition, particularly on the dimly-lit first floor of the two-story exhibition. Quant’s shop Bazaar on King’s Road was known for creating psychedelic, dreamlike tableaus, but this kind of eccentric experimentation and creativity seems absent from the exhibition design. Perhaps I was too optimistic in hoping to see a recreation of one these infamous store front designs behind one of the many glass cases.

The focus on the exhibition is not an experiential recreation of the quirkiness of the 1960s, but a focus on how actual women wore Quant’s designs. At the center of the upstairs display is a giant rounded screen that scrolls through pictures from the 1960s and 1970s of women wearing Quant’s designs. Quotes from these women describe how they wore their Quant pieces and how much they treasure them. In fact, a large portion of clothes in the exhibition were collected from regular women all over the world. The home photos show mothers, working women, brides, and young girls wearing Quant’s clothes and giving them life. This curatorial decision embraces the sacred relationship between designer and customer with the clothing as a bridge between them. Ultimately, this show is really about how Quant democratized the postwar London fashion scene, allowing middle-class women to take part in the exciting and eccentric innovations of mod culture.

Tim Walker: Wonderful Things

In the V&A’s latest exhibition Tim Walker: Wonderful Things, it is the museum itself that takes centre stage. Known for his fantastical sets, fairytale-esque scenes, and dramatic yet delicate costumes, Walker has been preparing for this exhibition for three years and his journey has taken him through more than one hundred of the V&A’s public galleries, to Bethnal Green’s Museum of Childhood, onto the roof of the South Kensington site and even underground into the labyrinthine Victorian tunnels beneath the museum itself.

The finished result – the completed exhibition – reads like a trip to Oz, Narnia, or Wonderland, with the V&A’s objects providing a plethora of potential keys (sometimes literally – one of my favourite displayed artefacts was Chamberlain’s Key) to the elusive shrinking door. Walker himself flits between the roles of Alice and the white rabbit – himself lost amongst the beauty and complexity of the V&A’s archives, but also leading us deeper and deeper into his strange, otherworldly visions.

Gold, decorative key in museum vitrine.
The Chamberlain’s Key, photo author’s own

Upon entering the exhibition space, visitors step inside a small white room with hand-blown glass letters hanging from above. Spelling out ‘Wonderful Things’, these letters are illuminated by a rainbow projection and after passing underneath them we are eased into Walker’s wonderland, as the first room appears, at first glance, to be a typical gallery room – clean, white and minimalist with framed portraits of notable figures hanging on the walls. But a closer look – both at the room itself and at the photographs – reveals a subversion of this traditional model.

Wall of multiple white framed photographs by Tim Walker, portraits of celebrities.
Tim Walker’s wall of portraits at his Wonderful Things exhibition, photo author’s own

Huge drips of white paint leak from the ceiling, almost camouflaged against the crisp, clean walls and in addition to the large photographs framed in clusters, the odd one or two is tucked away behind a display case, almost sitting on the floor. The photographs themselves demand a similar attention to detail: a brief glance at Walker’s portrait of Claire Foy – with her puffed-sleeve Alexander McQueen dress, her long white gloves and her tiara – and we immediately recognise her as the Queen in The Crown, but upon closer inspection we notice her uncharacteristically sceptical facial expression and the single cigarette hanging limply from between her perfectly made-up lips. Other memorable portraits ranged from a witch-like Margaret Atwood wielding a huge feather quill and wearing a heavy black cape, to Joanna Lumley, her light yellow feminine Chanel suit contrasting with her exaggerated Patsy Stone-style beehive and the crude image of twenty cigarettes crammed into her mouth.

Portrait of Joanna Lumley with a mouth full of cigarettes and holding a lighter
Tim Walker’s portrait of Joanna Lumley, photo author’s own

The level of detail in this room draws visitors in and we become absorbed in Walker’s world. But the white rabbit beckons us on, and we proceed to nine more stunningly decorated rooms, each one an ode to a different V&A artefact and all designed by Shona Heath. One much darker room takes inspiration from a sixteenth-century stained glass panel depicting Tobias and Sara, and is laid out like a dilapidated church, complete with gothic arches and damp-looking walls. The glowing colours of the stained glass – a perfect contrast to the dull grey tones of the set – are echoed in Walker’s images, including his fluorescent photographs of Grace Jones and his picture of Zuzanna Bartoszek, in which a stained glass pattern is projected over her body, clothing her in light and making her glow like a part of the window.

Tim Walker exhibition room with large church like wall with three stained glass pieces.
The dilapidated church set, photo author’s own

Another of my favourite rooms draws upon the largest photograph in the V&A’s archive – an image of the Bayeaux Tapestry. Flouting the traditional ‘look but don’t touch’ rule of the museum, this room seems interested in the tactile, focusing on the handiwork involved in the creation of the real tapestry. A central, semi-circular wall displays Walker’s photographs: a chain of them has been pasted together in a long, tapestry-like strip and each one is set inside a small padded cell, with loose material such as string, rope and cushion stuffing surrounding the subjects, who are dressed largely in red, blue, brown and green clothing that references the colouration of the tapestry’s stitches. The wall itself is also covered in a light, beige fabric and looked as though it has been quilted. Indeed, a gentle prod confirmed its satisfying, squishy texture.

two large, framed Tim Walker photos on curved, upholstered wall.
The quilted wall in the final room of the exhibition, photo author’s own

In Wonderful Things Tim Walker and his team pay homage to the museum as a site of history, creative potential and inspiration, while also subverting its conventions. By looking through the lens of Tim Walker’s camera, we glimpse the possibility of a new sort of platform for showcasing fashion and fashion photography within a museum.

Tim Walker: Wonderful Things at the Victoria and Albert Museum is curated by Susanna Brown and designed by Shona Heath. Tickets are available until 8 March 2020.

The Henkin Brothers Archive: Rediscovered Treasure

In February, I submitted an assessed essay discussing the image of the Neue Frau as documented through various media formats in Weimar Germany (see previous blog post ‘In Her Image’). So when Rebecca introduced me to the Henkin Brothers Archive a couple of weeks ago, I was excited to see primary photographic material rendering 1930s Berlin with a warming, frank humility. 

Before discussing their photographs, I think it’s best to get to know the brothers and their posthumously formed foundation first. The photographs of brothers Evgeny (b.1900) and Yakov Henkin (b.1903) were freshly unearthed in 2012. For over 70 years, untouched boxed filled with rolls of film had sat in Yakov Henkin’s former home in Leningrad. The rediscovery of these photographic heirlooms set in motion the creation of a wonderful archival foundation, with Yakov’s descendants taking full advantage of new technologies and digitising the thousands of negatives they had uncovered. 

Fig 1. Evgeny Henkin, Self-portrait with a Leica camera, c.1936-1937, Leningrad (St. Petersburg, USSR/Russia). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

Despite growing up together in Rostov-on-Dov (situated in the European South of the Russian Empire), the brothers’ paths diverged in the wake of the October Revolution (1917) in Russia, with Evgeny travelling to Berlin and Yakov moving to Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg). This disruptive parting between the two siblings is documented in their separate photographic collections: Evgeny capturing the cityscape of interwar Berlin (1926-1936) and Yakov the distinctive streets of 1930s Leningrad; until his voluntary enlistment in 1941 (his subsequent death on the Leningrad Front shortly thereafter). 

Fig 2. Yakov Henkin, Self-Portrait in a mirror, c. mid-1930s, Leningrad (St. Petersburg, USSR/Russia). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

In accordance with this blog’s dress historical premise, I thought it would be on-theme to select two images—from Berlin and Leningrad respectively—to demonstrate the brothers’ natural photographic talents whilst simultaneously illustrating the contemporary fashions of their individual city-spaces (neither brother worked professionally as photographers: each chose to hone their natural talent as amateurs while undertaking alternative careers). The first (Fig.3) is the stuff of fashion-historian dreams. Evgeny provides us with the street-side setting of what I assume to be a hair-salon’s storefront. This is a remarkably kitschy-cool image: quaffed and glossed mannequin heads line the length of the windowpane, while two living models occupy the foreground, emulating the pose of their backdrop inspirations. The Bubikopf, modelled here in various incarnations, was a masculine-inspired haircut symbolic of the New Woman’s revolutionary personhood. Bubikopf translates directly to ‘boy’s head’, and this affluent grooming modification was reconfigured several times, such as the shortened and smoothed ‘Eton crop’, which featured defined, exaggerated waves (see central mannequin for main reference). I am desperate for this wool coat on the left also, truly desperate. 

Fig 3. Evgeny Henkin, Two women, c.1930s, Berlin (Germany). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

The second image (Fig.4), taken by Yakov, is a more traditionally composed portrait that shows two women standing on one of Leningrad’s many riverfronts (c. late-1930s). In this image, we are treated to a fantastic display of jazzy pullovers that set the overall, fabulous fashion tone: matching ‘v’ neck-lines, each woman sporting a fun and unique woven motif (a dot pattern vs. a form of waved, rib knit) that is offset by equally distinguished collars (neat, petite bow vs. oversized Peter Pan collar). I could discuss at length the killer shoe-game on display here, but I am fully obsessed with the mirror-image diagonal poses each woman is striking (the soft, harmonious ‘v’ their bodies unintentionally create, repeating the motif of their corresponding necklines) and the headwear-cherries they have placed atop their ensemble-cakes: a structural cloche and the timeless beret (that always screams chic). Good show, ladies! 

Fig 4. Yakov Henkin, Two women, by the river, c. late-1930s, Leningrad (St. Petersburg, USSR/Russia). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

These two corresponding images, from individual European cities, depicting two pairs of fashion-conscious female friends and the style aesthetic of two unique landscapes, perfectly demonstrate the important, historical and cultural reference the Henkin Brothers’ work represents. 

In recent years, the collection has been displayed at the @hermitage_museum (St. Petersburg) in the archive’s inaugural public exhibition, entitled: The Henkin Brothers: A Discovery. People of 1920s-30s Berlin and Leningrad (2017). And just this May (16-19 May), a selection of Henkin Brothers photography was shown at the 2019 @streetphotomilano festival. It’s safe to say that the Henkin Brothers are making a stellar, 21st century comeback! 

I would like to thank Denis Maslov, Yakov Henkin’s great-grandson for his assistance and helpful emails concerning the writing of this post. Denis works to preserve the archive and develop its social media presence with his mother Olga—the only living descendants of the Henkin Brothers. 

To learn more about the Henkin Brothers Archive Association, go to  

And visit their Instagram ASAP—it’s full of photographic treasures: 

The John Cole Fashion Photography Archive

As Andrew Bolton, Head Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute once said in a Vogue documentary, ‘Your memory of fashion is fashion photography.’

I love fashion photography. I have collected magazines ever since I was little, when my mother and I would spend hours looking at the pretty glossy pictures. It was my interest in fashion photography that led me to the Documenting Fashion course at The Courtauld. An entire course on fashion imagery? I knew immediately that this course was for me. Reflecting upon my year at The Courtauld as it is coming to a close, I believe that one of the most important things I have learned is to appreciate the depth of fashion photography, as a fashion photograph can be much more than a visually pleasing image. I have learned that fashion photography has the potential to shape our attitudes towards our identity, our society and our culture. But fashion photographs are not only expressions of our visual culture: they are first and foremost expressions of our desires. We can come to see the world through the knowing eye of the fashion photographer, who instinctively captures seminal moments and has the ability to immortalise certain fashion designs.

I was convinced until this year that Google Images and my stack of old magazines were my best bet when it came to looking at old fashion photographs. I have since discovered the existence of a plethora of rich fashion photography archives, many of which have greatly helped me with my research throughout the year. The most recent archive that I have discovered is that of fashion photographer John Cole (1923-1995).

John Cole at work at Studio Five.*

John Cole began his career as a fashion photographer in the 1940s and opened his first studio in Mayfair in 1956. The studio, called ‘Studio Five’, attracted photographers who would rise to great prominence in the fashion industry—one such photographer, David Bailey, would eventually work for British Vogue. 

John started taking fashion photographs in the early 1940s when working for Gee & Watson and Hugh White Studios. He took many photographs for the original Tatler & Bystander magazine which was owned by the Illustrated London News; he also took photographs for Britannia & Eve magazine.

John was a very prolific photographer whose photographs were used for many adverts in a wide range of publications. At Studio Five, he took photographs for Hairdressers Journal, Flair Magazine, The Sunday Times, Daily Mail, The SUN, the Daily Express, Evening News, Evening Standard and The Guardian. Throughout the 1970s, Country Life ran a fashion section for which John was the main photographer. 

John’s many years of experience, both in the darkroom and on set watching other photographers at work, would eventually allow him to master his own techniques—such as lighting. As stated in an article from 1962, John was ‘someone at the top but always willing to learn.’ If he wasn’t using tungsten lighting, he was working with the natural daylight that poured in through the two roof windows at Studio Five.

This photograph was taken for Chemstrand tights, April 1966.* 

John asserted his creative agency in the original way he captured the cut and shape of the clothes in his images, demonstrating an utmost confidence in his own instincts. He seemed interested in capturing clothing from unexpected viewpoints. In shooting from quirky angles, his photographs change the way a particular garment is seen. They provide a fresh perspective on relatively standard items of dress that would make any woman want to purchase them. 

John Cole had a knack for showing the clothes off from unexpected angles.*

The pictures that have been collected and made available in his archive accessible via a website and an Instagram account give us a glimpse of the times in which he worked, particularly the 1960s—an era full of glamour and youthful fun. Included in this collection of stunning photographs are images of model-turned-editor Grace Coddington, along with some behind the scenes photographs that provide us with a flavour of the energetic ambiance of Studio Five. 

There was always music being played at the studio. Well, it was the 60s!*

John had a distinct ability to capture the energy of his subject. While there is a light and whimsical overtone to his photographs, the model in the picture always seems to be deeply engaged and present. We can see that each model is prepared to give everything she has, with the knowledge that John would capture her at the perfect moment. Each one of John’s models emanates a liveliness that reflects her desire to fully invest in playing her role for the camera. As John himself asserted, ‘There has to be complete affinity between photographer and model to take a really good picture.’

This image of Twiggy was taken for fashion brand Slimma in 1966. The clothes were designed by David Bond, whose trouser suit was the Bath Fashion Museum Dress of the Year in 1967, chosen by Felicity Green at the Daily Mirror.*

The John Cole website provides everything from bibliographic information, to video clips of him on set with 1960s icon Twiggy, to personal accounts written by individuals who worked alongside Cole at Studio Five. 

An archive such as this puts into question the ephemeral nature of fashion photography. It challenges common notions of fashion photography as images that we mindlessly flip through in a waiting room or on our morning commute: images that are quickly discarded, never to be looked at again once the next month’s issue is published. A fashion photography archive emphasises the commonly overlooked notion that fashion photography has the potential to capture the collective consciousness of a particular time, frozen in one glossy beautiful image. For those of us who cannot afford to wear the glamorous clothes featured in most fashion photographs, we can take solace in the thought that fashion photography nevertheless allows us to partake in this dream world. 

* All images taken from the John Cole Archive and subject to copyright.



‘Photography in Advertising: A self-contained service in an unusual backwater,’ John Heron, February, 1955

‘“The Only Way to Succeed…” Robert Sowter interviews top photographer John Cole,’ Robert Sowter, Time & Tide, November, 1962

Reviewed: Christian Dior at the V&A


‘Maman, je hais les bottes’, a little girl informed her mother of her dislike for a mannequin’s boots.
‘C’est quand même assez chic’, her sister disagreed.
‘I had a jacket rather like that in the eighties’, reminisced an older woman.
‘I don’t like that at all’, her friend with the pompadour and purple coat and countered.
‘Elaine liked the green dress.’ Who is Elaine?

Such are the sorts of things you might hear as you weave through the day-dreamscape that is the V&A’s Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. For a few minutes, I thought of framing my visit as one made through others’ impressions—those of Madame de Pompadour and opinionated French children. Never had I been more tempted to eavesdrop, but with the over 500 exhibits and some truly fabulous displays, soon my own impressions became more than enough to catalogue.

This is a favourite feeling: the heart-eyed, physical and emotional sense of being so visually overwhelmed that you don’t know where to turn your gaze first. At one point, I stood and looked up at the smart-tech surface of a classically ‘painted’ ceiling explode in gold shimmers and fade to constellations before sitting down to watch the light show again. And again. And then once more.

An evolution of the Musée des Arts Décoratif’s Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve, Dior begins with a small biographic timeline and a morphology of the Bar Suit—its oh-so-recognisable New Look silhouette and variety of iterations. The visitor is then guided through a shiny white model of the designer’s 30 Avenue Montaigne façade into an organic suite of themes, including the newly arranged ‘Dior in Britain’. Featuring Princess Margaret’s 21st birthday couture gown as its statement piece, this section treats Dior’s Anglophilia, collaborative endeavours with British fashion manufacturers and success amongst British clients. 

A parade of Aladin dresses (Right: Dior, Haute couture, Autumn/Winter 1953, Vivante Line ‘Lively’) and Mazette ensembles (Left: Dior, Haute couture, Autumn/Winter 1954, H line)

In the first of the nine sections beyond the anteroom, ‘The Dior Line’ presents ten quintessential Dior looks from 1947 to 1957: the ten-year span between Dior’s first collection and his death at age 52. Faced with the glowing strips of light delineating each mannequin’s space against the black background and the mirrored frames, my eyes slipped in and out of focus and my depth perception felt spotty. Curators suggest the timelessness of the line’s formative years in the telescopic space between opposing mirrors, and the selected ten ensembles become an endless stream of Aladin and Blandine, Maxim and Mazette.

With subsequent sections centred around ideas rather than chronologically, the exhibition maintains an equilibrium between cohesiveness-continuity and variety-expansion. The ‘Garden’ room reminds us of the inverted flower shape of the New Look—la corolle. The maximalism of John Galliano’s 2004 Look 4 Ensemble, resplendent in velvet, damask silk and erminesque rabbit fur, resonates with Christian Dior’s taste for romantic historicism. And the 2016 appointment of Maria Grazia Chiuri as the first female creative director takes the Dior ethos of ‘N’oubliez pas la femme’ to a new dimension, where a woman is no longer simply in a position to be considereddressed and celebrated—but to lead the House of Dior. 

‘The Atelier’ at Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, V&A

Exhibition highlights include the crisp, ultra-exposed showcase of ‘The Atelier’, with its variety of workshop toiles: look closely, and you may recognise designs previously exhibited. Accompanying videos of meticulous craftsmanship are a bit hypnotic. Have you ever thought of how the bows on the bottles of Miss Dior are cut and tied by hand? The Diorama arranges seven decades of shoes, sketches, accessories and makeup in a rainbow fade, and I made a game of spotting the most modern of Chiuri’s tarot enamel minaudières amongst seventy years of material history.

The final exhibition piece is the ‘Eventail de vos hasards’ dress, in which Chiuri transposed Dior’s promotional fan from the 1950s to the pale pink tulle skirt of the gown. Holding the original fan, the mannequin stands alone amidst reflections of itself in a now-familiar play of doubling, inversion and self-reference. Dior ends with an image of the future, grounded in the past, of endless openings and chance.

Eventail de vos hasards dress (‘Fan of Your Chances’), Dior by Maria Grazia Chiuri, Haute couture, Spring/Summer 2018; Fan, Dior by Eventails Gane, 1950-5

Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams is on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum until Sunday, July 14. 

Just for the Sake of Fashion? A Review of ‘Yves Saint Laurent: Dreams of the Orient’

Over the holidays, I was fortunate to visit the Yves Saint Laurent: Dreams of the Orient exhibit, currently on display at the Musée Yves Saint Laurent in Paris until 27 January 2019. The exhibit showcases fifty haute couture designs—clothes, accessories, and sketches—that were inspired by Indian, Chinese and Japanese culture. The fashions are flanked by pieces of traditional Asian art that Saint Laurent would have studied. Another focus of the exhibit is the highly controversial launch and ad campaign of Yves Saint Laurent’s first perfume Opium.

Images of ‘Yves Saint Laurent: Dreams of the Orient’, Musée Yves Saint Laurent, Paris

Much was on my mind as I walked through the small but very well designed museum. Pot lights illuminating the dark rooms provided a sense of liminality, as if one is half-way between a public and private space. I found it particularly interesting to walk through the exhibit with alongside my brother, who could not help but notice that the displays of Orientalist fashion echoed the theoretical discourse put forward by Edward Said in Orientalism, his foundational text on postcolonial theory. As a student of international relations, my brother went into the exhibit with a mind primed for the cultural impetus of Saint Laurent’s designs. As we made our way through the museum, he could not help but comment that Saint Laurent had problematically fashioned his collection out of a homogenised Western imagination and depiction of the Orient. 

In order to construct his vision for the show, Saint Laurent referenced Western literary works and histories that convey a dominant image of what the Orient represents. Saint Laurent drew on his own imagination to create designs that reflected the frames, tropes and categorisations of the Orient as described by these Western authors—without having ever travelled to these countries (save for Japan) himself. Although Said’s book was only published a year after Saint Laurent’s 1977 ‘Les Chinoises’ collection was unveiled to the world, the display today nonetheless challenges us to reconcile the production of Orientalist knowledge and fashion with our own understanding of how Western history depicts and represents the Orient. Linked to this is the idea of cultural appropriation that evokes the same themes of colonialism and oppression still largely dominating political and societal discourse to this day.

Image taken of ‘Yves Saint Laurent: Dreams of the Orient’, Musée Yves Saint Laurent, Paris

At the same time, is important to consider the exhibit in light of the manner in which Saint Laurent originally expected the designs to be viewed. For instance, the exhibit deliberately includes the word ‘dreams’ in the title, a fitting word choice that allows one to appreciate the collection as a dream representing a fantasy of the exotic beauty Saint Laurent imagined the Orient could offer viewers through fashion. Irrespective of the political implications, the sheer beauty, artistry and craftsmanship of the collection are undeniable and should not go unnoticed. Saint Laurent’s clothes remain true masterpieces and their elegance, finesse and uniqueness should be appreciated in the specific cultural context and historical processes in which they were designed.

Perhaps the designs can only be fully appreciated if we view them as an exhibition of a collection that reflects a particular cultural, historical and political understanding present in 1977. However, if these same designs were sent down the Fall/Winter 2019 Saint Laurent catwalk, would we be able to continue to acknowledge their beauty and artistry, or would we feel compelled to criticise them for their cultural appropriation?