A new academic year and a new group of brilliant bloggers – welcome Rosie, Megan, Victoria, Ipek, Claudia, Erin and Georgina!
While Rebecca Arnold is working hard on her latest book, I’m teaching the Documenting Fashion course. I graduated from the Courtauld History of Art MA in 2005 and it’s a joy to be back! As well as lecturing, I write on fashion and photography and curate exhibitions – most recently Tim Walker: Wonderful Things at the V&A, London, and The Photographic Art of George Hoyningen-Huene at Grisebach, Berlin.
Term began just a few weeks ago and we’ve explored so much already. Highlights so far include a visit to James Barnor’s exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, and a morning with the rare fashion sketches and magazines from the Courtauld Library’s special collections. There are lots of fantastic blog posts to come this term, so please stay tuned!
Every group is special. Every year has its own particular character. But the academic year 2020-21 was a year like no other… and this year’s MA Documenting Fashion students proved their intelligence, resourcefulness and grace during lockdowns, restrictions and global uncertainties.
I want to congratulate all of you for everything you’ve achieved – for the inspiring seminar discussions, sparkling presentations and thoughtful essays. For your imaginative searches for evidence and resources, the brilliant visual analysis and innovative ideas expressed in your Virtual Exhibitions and Dissertations, all the blog posts and, of course, the truly amazing costumes for our zoom parties.
Well done Violet, Kathryn, Ruby, Simona, Alexandra, Genevieve, Lucy and Bethan. It has been an honour to teach you and to spend this weird and difficult year in the company of such brilliant young dress historians.
Happiness and success to you all, I look forward to seeing what the future holds for you – I know that each of you will continue to shine.
P.s. extra thanks to Simona and Ruby for acting as the blog’s Editors-in-chief during the autumn term, and to Kathryn and Lucy for taking on this role in spring and summer. You all did such a great job!
P.p.s. the Documenting Fashion blog will return in October, with posts by the new 2021-22 group of students…
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.
As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Simona discusses growing up in her family’s fashion boutique, dress as a language and American screwball comedies from the 1930s.
Do you have an early fashion memory to share?
I have many early memories related to fashion. I often say that I was born among clothes: my grandfather started his textiles business in the south of Italy in the 1950s, which he shortly after turned into a menswear boutique. My father started working there at the end of the 1970s and then opened his own boutique in 2000, when I was just four years old. The boutique still exists in its original location and is currently run by my elder siblings, with the support of my father. I have many memories related to both my grandfather’s and my father’s businesses. As a child, I was extremely fascinated by the tactile qualities of clothes: I particularly loved passing my hand through the suits, perfectly hanging on their display racks, organised by colour, cut and fabric, and unfolding every shirt, sweater and pair of trousers to look at their smallest details, often deciding to try them on despite the obvious size mismatch. Some of my favourite memories involve a game I used to play in the boutique, where I would pretend to be a sales assistant with the support of our oldest employee, who would kindly and patiently play along, interpreting the role of ever different customers with the most bizarre requests. It was certainly good training – also because he taught me how to fold every item properly.
What is one thing you’ve learned about dress history that you wish more people knew?
That dress history in itself is not just about ‘clothes’. The general understanding of the concept of dress is so shallow that trying to explain to those who ask what it means to study it is quite complicated. I recently came across a picture in a fashion magazine with a text reading ‘I don’t understand what my clothes mean’, and I became obsessed with it. It made me think that this is precisely the reason why I decided to study dress history: to understand the meaning of these items that we put on our bodies – along with all the elements that compose our appearance – which possess a unique and incredible communicative power, even more immediate than words. The problem, however, is that this language is unknown to most people, and trying to decipher it without the right tools is practically impossible. Studying dress history gave me those tools, unlocking an immense universe which encompasses multiple fields, such as sociology, social anthropology, psychology, economics, and politics.
What is your favourite thing you’ve read this year?
Every paper or book I read thanks to this course was fascinating and challenging in its own way. However, to go back to what I was saying before about not knowing what the concept of ‘dress’ actually means: I would say one of the most important things we have analysed, at the very beginning of the MA, was Joanne B. Eicher and Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins’ ‘Definition and Classification of Dress: Implications for Analysis of Gender Roles’. As a long-time supporter of Judith Butler’s ideas on gender as performance, this paper furthered my understanding of how, in the societal context I am writing from, the most prominent social distinction communicated by dress is that of learned gender roles.
What is your dissertationabout?
My dissertation is about the intersection between star image, costume design and film genre. I am discussing the function and meaning of costumes in the context of the American screwball comedies of the 1930s, through a specific focus on the screen couple Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Howard Hawks’ 1938 movie Bringing Up Baby and George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, released in 1940. Throughout my academic career, I have been particularly interested in star studies and how this field relates to film and fashion. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Sophia Loren’s costumes in Vittorio De Sica’s 1963 comedy Ieri, Oggi, Domani, and, although through different lenses, I enjoyed the idea of following a similar path to conclude my MA. Comedy is one of the richest and most fascinating genres, in my opinion, and I believe there is much to be said about the implications of clothes and fashion when it comes to screen comedies.
Which outfit from dress history do you wish you could wear?
This is such a hard question! I will go with the one outfit that immediately came to my mind when I read this question, which is included in one of my favourite portraits and dress history images: Charles Frederick Worth’s evening ball gown worn by Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Sissi, in her 1865 portrait painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. It is just sublime. The off-the-shoulder neckline, the white satin mixed with tulle, with thousands of silver foil stars shimmering throughout the dress, matching the diamond edelweiss pins in her long, braided hair… I must have dreamt of a dress like this a thousand times in my childhood ‘princess’ fantasies, way before I became acquainted with this painting. Plus, what an unforgettable experience it would have been to be dressed by the father of haute couture himself!
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)
After being shut for months due to lockdown, galleries in the UK have finally reopened their doors to visitors. Amongst a plethora of ‘must-see’ shows, the Serpentine Gallery’s highly anticipated James Barnor retrospective is opening to the public this Thursday. Exhibiting a selection of iconic images taken by the Ghanaian photographer during his six-decade career, it aims to highlight his role as a pioneering figure within modern photography.
Now ninety-two and living in the UK, Barnor recalls how he crossed continents and genres to further his knowledge of photography. As a studio photographer and photojournalist, he captured Ghana on the cusp of independence in the 1950s. He later introduced colour photography to the nation in the 1970s. In between these two pivotal chapters of his career, he moved to London, where he documented the city’s transformation into a multicultural metropolis in the post-war era. Working as a documentary and fashion photographer, he harnessed the power of photography to illuminate the multidimensionality of Black experience in Britain in the 1960s.
In order to comprehend the power of Barnor’s images and his skill as a photographer, it is important to first understand the complex time he was living in. During the 1950s and 1960s, Britain was experiencing a wave of post-war migration as a result of the 1948 British Nationality Act, which granted people in the Commonwealth full rights to British Citizenship. Whilst this marked a watershed moment in the formation of Black Britain, it was also a dark chapter in the nation’s history with racism inherent in the media, politics and society-at-large. This racial intolerance culminated in the Notting Hill Riots of 1958, during which Black people were targeted in violent attacks by white mobs. In the political sphere, various acts were introduced throughout the 1960s which aimed to limit citizenship rights. It was against this backdrop that Barnor worked as a photographer, producing images which were not overtly politically or racially charged in nature, yet prove incredibly impactful given the socio-political landscape of the period.
Commissioned by Drum, the South African Anti-Apartheid journal, he photographed Black models engaging with the latest fashions in the streets of London. These were circulated internationally and have come to be known as pioneering images of Black beauty. Presenting a multi-national cohort of Black women against iconic British backdrops such as post boxes, telephone boxes and Underground signs, he visually manifested the merging of different cultures in post-war Britain. Whether he was photographing Erlin Ibreck leaning against a Jaguar in Kilburn, Marie Hallowi feeding birds in Trafalgar Square, or Mike Eghan leaping off the fountain at Piccadilly Circus, Barnor aimed to capture his subject’s essence and individuality at a time when Black Britain was triumphantly coming into being against a challenging socio-political backdrop.
Barnor also photographed his friend’s weddings, christenings and parties. Taken for family albums, these documentary images were intended not for public consumption nor to make a political statement about racism or marginality, but rather to capture key milestones within the multicultural communities which were emerging in Britain at this time. Style was a tool of social and cultural transformation for Barnor’s subjects. Inspired by various factors such as Western culture, urban dress, group identity, African style and gender ideals, they harnessed the communicative power of clothing to visually manifest their own perspective of what constituted being Black and British at that time. Meticulously dressed, they exude a sense of joy and self-assurance as they become part of the social fabric of multicultural Britain.
Barnor’s images of London make up the second of three sections at the Serpentine exhibition. The first section is dedicated to portraits he took in his studio, EverYoung, in Accra during the 1950s, as well as his journalistic photographs of Ghanaian independence. The third and final section is made up of colour photographs taken in post-colonial Ghana on his return from Britain in the 1970s. What unites these three sections is a sense of joy and community. Barnor saw photography as a collaborative venture between the photographer and subject, which created a sense of intimacy. His images of both Ghana and Britain are powerful visual testaments of societies in transition during the latter half of the twentieth century.
By Violet Caldecott
Campt, Tina M., Image Matters, Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe (Duke University Press: Durham and London), 2012
Hall, Stuart, ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’, 1990, in Paul Gilroy and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Selected Writings on Race and Difference, Stuart Hall (Duke University Press: Durham and London), 2021
Olusoga, David, Black and British, A Forgotten History (Pan Macmillian London), 2017
Ed. Mussai, Renée, James Barnor, Ever Young (Autograph ABP: London) 2015
Park, Rianna Jade, How James Barnor’s Photographs Became Symbols of Black Glamour, Aperture, issue 242, New York, March 2021 (Aperture Foundation Inc: London) 2021
Last week, I watched Helmut Newton: The Bad and The Beautiful. This candid biopic explores Newton’s complex legacy as a photographer through a series of his most provocative images and interviews with the women who featured in them. Amongst Newton’s iconic shots of Claudia Schiffer, Charlotte Rampling and Marianne Faithful, I found myself struck by a grainy black and white photograph hanging on the wall of his New York apartment. A cropped shot of a woman’s legs in stockings, dramatically illuminated against a dark background, it is an evocative rendering of the female form. Whilst it possesses the same sensual quality as Newton’s photographs, it is not his work. It was taken by Else Neulander Neuman, otherwise known as Yva, the Weimar photographer who had mentored Newton in the early days of his career.
Yva was a leading photographer in Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s. Inspired by the creative atmosphere of the Bauhaus, Objectivism and German Expressionism movements, she used theatrical lighting and clean geometric lines, to create a sophisticated and refined image of glamour. In the male-dominated sphere of fashion photography which often propagated a sexualised model of femininity, her elegant and allusive photographs of women provided a refreshing outlook on female beauty.
Yva’s most iconic images were her stocking advertisements. Using close-cropped shots and theatrical lighting, she put the focus on the texture of the garment and immersed the female viewer in an act of ‘haptic seeing’. The photograph which Newton had hung on his wall was from an advertisement she shot for UHU in 1929 titled Schöne Beine in schönen Strümpfen (Beautiful Legs in Beautiful Stockings). The dramatic lighting of the woman’s legs against the nebulous dark background serves not only to highlight the form of the woman’s knees, shins and ankles, but also to emphasise the contrast between the grainy texture of the mass-produced stockings and the soft satin of her shoes. In its rich and sensuous depiction of the different textures, it encourages the women to imagine themselves wearing the stockings, with the visual focus not solely on the leg, nor solely on the stocking, but rather on the relationship between the item of clothing and the body. Yva’s photographs for magazines such as Die Dame and Elegante Welt provided a feminine perspective of products, engaging with female consumers’ sense of sight as well as touch.
Looking at Yva’s work, I have come to understand Newton’s photography in a different way. As shown by the stocking advertisement he had hung in his flat, he drew inspiration from her use of ‘haptic seeing’ to immerse the women in a multi-sensory experience of the latest fashions. Although he was not a woman, having understood the world through Yva’s eyes and indeed lens, he created photographs which spoke directly to the female consumer and her needs and desires.
By Violet Caldecott
Belting, Hans, ‘The Transparency of the Medium: The Photographic Image,’ in An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2011)
Hatton, Hayley, Yva: shattered vision, The tragic hidden legacy of one of history’s most visionary photographers, Dazed and Confused, July 2008
For hundreds of years, women’s fashion has been a magnet for satire and mockery. A woman interested in fashion, astutely observed by feminist scholar Sandra Clark, is often associated with two ‘fruitful themes of misogyny’: frivolous excess and overt sexuality. In a brief (yet repeating) and curious phenomenon, London in the year 1620 saw such satire distort itself into an attack on a particular type of fashionable women – those who were dressing and acting like men.
We should, first, imagine ourselves in the bustling streets of London in the year 1620; King James I was the first Scottish king as the increasingly urban capital became populated with an emerging merchant class that was – controversially, of course – wealthier than ever before. The English Renaissance was at its peak, and theatrical culture was flourishing. Nestled among this transforming social landscape of seventeenth-century England was the strange and sudden condemnation of women wearing men’s clothes.
Evidence of this first emerged in a letter written on 25 January 1620 by prolific author John Chamberlain to a friend outside of the capital. A new fashion was spreading across London, it seemed – he wrote of women in ‘broad brimmed hats’, ‘pointed doublets’, with their hair ‘cut short’. ‘The world is very far out of order’, he lamented. King James I must have too felt a disruption to gendered stability and instructed all bishops and preachers in London to ‘to inveigh vehemently and bitterly … against the insolence of our women’ via their sermons.
Soon after the King’s reported orders to the pulpit, on February 9 1620 an anonymously written pamphlet was printed and distributed around London, hatefully entitled Hic Mulier, or, the Man-Woman. A vitriolic document, it is addressed to the fictional titular character Hic Mulier, a cross-dressing woman who has ‘cast off the ornaments of [her] sexes, to put on the garments of Shame’. These garments of shame, much like the letter of John Chamberlain, included a ‘broad-brim’d Hatte, and wanton feather’, and the ‘loose, lascivious embracement of a French doublet, being all unbutton’d to entice all of one[‘s] shape’. To this pamphlet’s anonymous author, the Hic Mulier type, in her confusingly masculine-yet-seductive garments was represented in growing numbers of ‘city wives’ – the new class of wealthy mercantile (not aristocrats nor gentry) women.
Up until this point, fashion was something heavily regulated by the Crown. Sumptuary legislation ensured that only those of high status could wear fine clothes and fabrics like lace and silk. But repeated proclamations of these laws in 1574, 1577, 1580, 1588, and 1597, can only suggest alarm from the government at the growing agency of fashion. For the first time, too, the legislation specifically imposes restrictions on not just men but their wives. Women, clearly, in the context of apparel, were becoming increasingly independent. Fashion itself was upsetting social and gendered order, and as the merchant class became established, the explosion of the cross-dressing controversy in 1620 epitomised this this. Indeed, in the weeks following Hic Mulier, or, the Man-Woman, two more satirist pamphlets featuring the cross-dressing women were rapidly published and circulated.
In such a rigid and orderly society, men’s clothes were obviously perceived differently on women’s bodies. The scandalously unbuttoned doublet worn by the androgyne in Hic Mulier was not uncommon in men for in the early seventeenth century; indeed, it was fashionable particularly for artists or poets to sport a somewhat unkempt appearance with open collars and their doublets undone. A woman in an unbuttoned doublet, of course, was no longer melancholic and artistic but immodest and enticing, revealing the natural shape of her body. According to the pamphlets, the cross-dressed woman was the antithesis to the modest, feminine woman, and ‘will give her body to have her bodie deformed’. Crucially, to these moralists, Hic Mulier was conversely masculine in both behaviour and appearance (even carrying a dagger for duelling) yet promiscuous and ‘bawdy’.
This masculine fashion trend clearly exacerbated patriarchal fears of the overtly sexual woman who both looked and indeed acted like a man. But the issue of fashion is also integral – to moralists, wearing masculine clothing served to accentuate a woman’s sexuality, but also highlighted her vanity and frivolity. Unsurprisingly, the illustration on the title page of Hic Mulier depicts a woman in a broad-brimmed feathered hat looking at herself in a mirror.
The only evidence of these masculine-presenting women is in the written criticism and condemnation by men. But it’s affirming that, against the backdrop of socially fluid, urban and increasingly commodified London, a subverting trend in women’s fashion was able to briefly disturb the rigidity of the royal court, pulpit, and press. Although we will never know how many women really cross-dressed in early seventeenth century or what type of women participated, one thing is clear: as long as women’s changing fashions has long caused crises among the male ruling classes, women have been purposefully dressing to subvert, dupe, disguise and express themselves.
By Kathryn Reed
Clark, Sandra, ‘”Hic Mulier”, “Haec Vir”, and the Controversy over Masculine Women, Studies in Philology 82 2 (1985), pp. 157-183
Hooper, Wilfrid, ‘The Tudor Sumptuary Laws’, The English Historical Review 30 119 (1915), p. 433-449
Newman, Karen, Fashioning Femininity: Femininity and English Renaissance Drama (Chicago, 1991)
Vincent, Susan J., ‘“When I am in Good Habitt”: Clothes in English Culture c. 1550 – c. 1670’ (PhD dissertation, University of York, 2002)
Gunne Sax was founded in 1967, the Summer of Love, by San Francisco-based dressmakers Elle Bailey and Carol Miller. The brand became hugely popular under the direction of Jessica McClintock in the 1970s. Known for their prairie dresses, Gunne Sax designs incorporated elements from various romanticised time periods, from the front-lacings of a medieval kirtle, through the low-cut square neck of Renaissance French gowns, out to Victorian mutton sleeves and the lace inserts of Edwardian tea dresses. They also often resembled traditional folk costume – many look like refashionings of the German dirndl, for instance. The overall effect is one of fairytale escapism. This is a European heritage through American eyes. In 1984, McClintock herself told People magazine ‘I sell romance and fantasy’. The name of the dress, however, suggests the prairie skirts worn by colonisers in the mid-19th century. The dresses were popular with hippies in the 1970s, connecting back to the more progressive politics of the sixties and therefore appealing to the young women for whom they were made. Yet the invocation of “traditional values” in the whitewashed historical references and relative modesty of the designs made them double agents, and therefore supremely financially viable.
The overarching sense of historical fantasy is picked up by Laird Borrelli-Persson in an article for Vogue.com in 2016, entitled ‘How the Gunne Sax Dress Went From Cliché to Cool’. She writes that “at the end of what was, for many, an annus horribilis, the escapist fantasy aspect of Gunne Sax dresses resonates and makes them look fresh, not frumpy.” 2016 might well have been a horrible year for America, but 2020 was unfathomable in terms of collective trauma. If we take this need for escape and nostalgia as a key factor in the resurgence of Gunne Sax-style prairie dresses, it makes sense that we have seen so many iterations of the prairie dress in recent years, in a time of such huge socio-political upheaval. From Alexander McQueen spring/summer 2019 and Gucci fall/winter 2020, to Cecilie Bahnsen and Batsheva autumn/winter 2019, to Ganni and Dôen’s most recent collections, prairie dresses have already been established as a wardrobe essential of sorts.
But then came cottagecore, an internet aesthetic which revolves around a romanticised western pastoral, free from the urban spaces to which so many of us have been confined through quarantine. As Rowan Ellis points out in her video ‘why is cottagecore so gay?’, cottagecore is not a subculture, but imagery consumed online, through social media sites like Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and TikTok. But even if a cottage in the woods is unavailable to most, there are active elements of a cottagecore lifestyle that are available to all. Speaking to i-D, 16-year-old Redditor InfamousBees says “I can make bread in a tiny city apartment. I can grow herbs in my windowsill or in flowerpots or in old mugs. I can surround myself with loved, cared-for plants that can thrive on little sunlight. I don’t need a huge yard to have a few chickens or a big, fluffy dog. I certainly don’t need a cottage to be vulnerable with my girlfriend.” These small things are all examples of behavioural activation, small goals that result in positive rewards. The queer roots of this focus on handmaking and craft are outlined beautifully by Eleanor Medhurst in her article ‘Cottagecore Lesbians And The Landdyke Legacy’. Here, she discusses landdyke ecofeminism, which is based on a network of communities of lesbian activists. One function of these communes has traditionally been “living important values through everyday acts”, like the small rituals that link teenagers looking at images online to the aesthetic that underlines those images. Gunne Sax dresses, as they are now necessarily bought vintage – by virtue of the closure of the brand – play into the ecological concerns of cottagecore enthusiasts, but also hold a sense of the significance and integrity of something owned before. They hold stories of the past and therefore connect us to other human beings. There is community in pre-owned clothing.
Yet this is a community in which few can participate. Gunne Sax dresses, though labelled “affordable” by Borrelli-Persson, tend to sell at around £300 a garment, which is unreasonably expensive for most. They are also size restrictive – though a prairie dress looks great on everyone, most Gunne Sax examples for sale are between an XS and an S – even as a mid-size girl, I’ve yet to find one that will fit me. These price and size restrictions reflect some of the more problematic aspects of the aesthetic, which align with its predecessors. Ronald Creagh identifies hippies as the last guard of utopian socialism, following in the footsteps of the Romantics and William Morris, but I would argue that cottagecore is reflective of this ideology, too. It falls into many of the same pitfalls – an idea from the mind of those who are alienated from the real toil of farm life, who do not know the struggles of working the land, and who think of it only as “simple”, at their most detached approaching Marie Antoinette and her model farm, Le Hameau de la Reine.
A third problem with the cottagecore aesthetic is the exclusion of BIPOC – if you look under the hashtags for Gunne Sax, almost every photo is of a thin white woman. Indeed, many of the touchpoints of the aesthetic are of colonial Western Europe. Leah Sinclair argues that “black women embracing cottagecore is an act of defiance”. Like many exercises in reclamation, it is both ambivalent and powerful. Some of my favourite BIPOC cottagecore creators include @hillhousevintage, @obrienandolive, @sallyomo, @puffybunni, @victoriamisu and @camriehewie.
However, the white supremacist possibilities and the traditionally patriarchal values espoused by the aesthetic have drawn interest from alt-right circles, particularly through the figure of the tradwife, a woman whose position is based on traditional wifely activities, namely cooking, cleaning and babymaking. It’s substantially different from being a housewife, a job which (like many caring professions) is vastly undervalued in society today, because it relies on an ideology that dictates that women are naturally more gentle, more submissive, and weaker. It’s also clearly trans- and homophobic. In so many ways, it is the opposite of the WLW cottagecore community. The danger in an aesthetic, perhaps even more so than a subculture, is that the focus on imagery rather than politics allows for the visual markers of a group to be taken up by those who actively wish harm to others who might look or dress quite like them. Ultimately, the success of cottagecore online is its marketability. To span both sides of the political spectrum is quite a feat, and there’s huge commercial potential to be tapped, which is, I’m sure, partly why we’ve seen such a proliferation of Gunne Sax-style dresses in the past few years, and why the imagery has been pushed forward by the algorithms: it makes people buy. But even if this is the drive behind its popularity, the value of community and care, environmental activism, handmaking and crafts which cottagecore encourages are not lessened by that fact. If anything, it provides a drive to make a world where these things are valued more.
Isla Simpson seems to live in a world bedecked in the beauty of her own creation. The multifaceted designer has adorned stationery, china, mirrors, linens, and candles with her delightfully romantic visions of climbing ivy, budding roses, and silky ribbons, creating a portfolio that is nothing short of a chintzy fairytale. Before she lent her hand to the world of lush interiors and painted papers, Simpson spent a decade and a half working in accessories design, an experience she says informs her work now but also gave her courage to set off on her own away from the world of fashion. To add further to her impressive resume, Simpson is a Documenting Fashion alum of sorts, having studied with Dr. Rebecca Arnold during their time at Central Saint Martins! Below, we caught up with Simpson about the journey she’s taken following the passion that has always tugged at her (surely bow-tied) heartstrings.
I’ve garnered from your social media and your lovely website that you started your career working in fashion (and I’ve also gathered that you might be eager to talk about it! No pressure if you are not, of course). How did you enter into the fashion industry and what did your career in the fashion world entail?
I knew from the moment I arrived at Saint Martin’s that accessories design was for me, so I worked as a weekend shop girl at Anya Hindmarch and went straight into women’s handbag design on graduation. I worked for various brands over 15 years, designing everything from the shape of the bag and purses to the metal componentry and the leathers. It was a niche career, but I’d engineered myself into the ‘It bag’ era, so my skill set was in demand.
What made you decide to depart from the fashion industry to start your independent career as a designer and illustrator?
Longevity in my field has always been important to me. The generation of designers above me all seemed to disappear after 40, so I knew I had a problem on the horizon. I could foresee the industry would only support me if I went into middle management in an age-appropriate brand. The only way to future-proof myself was to set up on my own, and I thought it was scarier not to try…
I should add I was also creatively burnt out, too. When I entered the industry, we designed the traditional two seasons a year. By the time I left, it was nudging eight collections. It took a pandemic to stop those product-churning cogs, even though we all knew it was wrong.
Do you find that your time in fashion informs the way you work now? Have you reshaped your creative process as you work independently?
Absolutely! Fashion training was second to none, I learnt everything I know standing on the factory floor (my factories were amazing), drawing technical drawings, software packages etc. You have to meet the deadline; the buck stops with you.
When that chapter closed, I had to ‘reboot and unplug’ myself from trends, and the merchandising team whispering ‘bestseller’ in my ear. I sought inspiration in the British Library archives and old country houses. I allowed myself to be besotted with everything chintzy and feminine, for no reason other than my enjoyment.
I now only design products that I truly love, in the hope that my followers love them too. Because my designs come from a place of true passion, and respect for chintz patterns, that sustains me through the tough times such as 2020.
You work with such a wide variety of media – gorgeous papers, linens and, of course, the iPad. Do you find that your approach to illustration changes across each?
It definitely keeps things fresh! The uniting aesthetic is that my work is always quite flat, respecting that tradition of graphic, block printing in chintz surface pattern.
Sadly, few new chintz patterns are designed – it’s just no longer commercially viable to pay a designer for weeks to hand paint as they would have done in the old days. I’ve developed techniques that mimic the textures and brushes of old chintzes on the iPad, which means I can design that old-school look faster. All the brands I collaborate with are in a hurry, so there’s no time for scanning in and cleaning up.
Your work seems so steeped in the lush beauty of British history. Are there any particular periods or styles of design history that inform your work?
I used to spend hours at the Museum of Costume in Bath as a teenager which probably tells you everything you need to know about my love for Regency aesthetic. I’m drawn to the sentimentality of Victoriana, but stylistically I’m always trying to return to the 80s/90s – the cosy chapter of my childhood.
Is there a relationship between your personal style and your designs?
The two are now so intertwined, I barely know where one begins and the other starts…I want ruffles on my dresses, bed linen and my linen hand towel designs.
In the fashion years, I had to suppress my own style in favour of whichever accessories brand I was designing for and represented. Now, I just feel unapologetically myself – you could come back in twenty years’ time and the house will still be full of blousey curtains and pie-crust collars. It’s just part of my DNA.
Finally, this might be a bit selfish, but it seems that you have an unbelievable collection of vintage ribbons and textiles and I’m so curious to have a metaphorical peek: is there one ribbon or swatch that has been particularly inspiring or comforting to you during this year spent inside?
I used to feel embarrassed about being a grown woman collecting ribbons, but I am in good company on Instagram, so I’ll happily share.
My Mum studied Italian in Naples as a mature student, and I used to visit her during the holidays. This silky swatch came from the most fantastic vintage ribbon shop – I wish I could remember the address – I’d give my right arm to return to. The woven underside is as beautiful as the top. I’m launching lots of embroidered table linen designs this year, all of which were designed during the pandemic year, when I had to make do and be resourceful with my inspiration. Ribbons make the best colourway and construction research.