Dressing for the Empire: Australian women in London 1900-1930
What prompted you to choose this subject?
The initial stirrings of an idea started months ago when I was trawling the British Pathé archives for another assignment and came across a gorgeous little clip from 1967 that featured models parading through a sheep shed that was reporting on uses of Australian wool in fashion for the British public. It got me thinking about the depictions of Australian fashion in the UK and particularly the depiction of the Australian woman.
Most inspiring research find so far?
The most inspiring research so far have been the wonderful characters I have come across (like Beatrice Kerr, above) and they have largely determined the timeframe I’ve decided to focus on (1900-1930). The number of single Australian and New Zealand born women living in Britain during these years was incredibly high. These women largely travelled to Britain alone, with no firm plans as to employment or accommodation when they arrived. It was an incredibly bold move to take for women in this era, and fostered a particular idea about antipodean women being independent, resourceful and bit wild. With this perception already in place, and being far from the social restrictions they might face at home these women were able to transgress social norms thanks to their status as ‘outsiders’. My research is now trying to establish how these social assumptions translated into the dress and bodies of these women; the way they transgressed physically, and ways in which dress characterised transgressive femininity.
Favourite place to work?
After the necessity of trawling through old newspapers in the British Library Newsroom for a few weeks I’ve become quite attached to it. The microfiche machines mean it isn’t dead silent and there are ALWAYS tables free which means I don’t have to arrive for doors open. And the baristas at the little coffee cart inside the entrance are the only people in London who remember my coffee order. Possibly I’m there too much.
My working title is La Mode revee and the New York World Fair, 1939
What prompted you to choose this subject?
I can’t quite remember how, but somehow in the course of research I stumbled across Marcel L’Herbier’s short film La Mode revee (1939), which was produced to promote Parisian couture at the New York World Fair in 1939.
Not only does the film make for fun viewing (the plot involves figures from Antoine Watteau’s painting, Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717), coming to life, escaping from the Louvre and going shopping in the top Paris couturiers), but its themes chimed directly with my own interests. I plan to explore the film in relation to the 1939 New York World Fair and questions concerning the temporality of fashion. Marcel L’Herbier is a fascinating director and one who deserves much more critical exploration and recognition.
Most inspiring research find so far?
A few weeks ago I took a short study trip to Paris. In the archives at the Bibliotheque nationale de France I found some of the documents relating to the production of La Mode revee. I haven’t seen them referred to anywhere else and I didn’t unearth them until a couple of days in, so it felt like a very satisfying find! Plus, exploring new libraries is always inspiring.
Favourite place to work?
I can be found most days in the British Library. They have (nearly!) all the books and you don’t even have to look for them on the shelves. Once you’ve ordered the book you want online the kindly librarians do all the legwork for you, so all you have to do is pick it up from the counter. That’s a win win in my opinion.
I’m currently supervising five of my second-year students through the research, writing and editing stages of their 4,000 word dissertations. They are writing on a variety of interesting topics, which include:
The complexity of dress reflecting complicated relationships in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954);
The representation of Japanese street-style in noughties American print media;
Dress as a traveller through time, space and place in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (1996);
A Freudian examination of British Punk fashion from 1975-85;
And, An analysis of Cecil Beaton’s dual identity in the American Vogue (March, 1951) fashion shoot, ‘The New Soft Look’.
It’s great to be helping my students tackle many of the problems I remember struggling with – structure, focus, linking the thread of the argument, avoiding colloquialisms, analysing quotations rather than simply dropping them into the text, pushing the analysis further still – and hopefully, emerging triumphant at the other end. I remember my own third-year assessed essay that I wrote in 2011, which addressed the representation of Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto’s designs by the American and British fashion press in the early 1980s. I struggled with lots of aspects but thankfully had the help, not just of my supervisor Dr Rebecca Arnold, but also of the author and editor Virginia Rounding, the then Royal Literary Fellow, which is part of an amazing service the Courtauld provides for its students to help them improve their writing. For nostalgia’s sake, and because it’s fun to look back as well as ahead, I’ve included a pdf of my essay here, entitled ‘The American and British Reception and Representation of Japanese Fashion Designers in the Early 1980s’.
Skin and Mirrors: The surface and self in the copyright albums of Madeline Vionnet.
What prompted you to choose this subject?
The subject of the first History of Dress Research Forum, Addressing Images event, was one the images from the photographic albums. After discussing the image, I went and did some research and realised that there was little writing about this rich collection of images, which were considered purely as a means of documentation for her designs and as copyright tools. My dissertation will consider how these photographs function both within and beyond the genre of ‘documentary’ and focus on how the visual tropes of skin and mirrors link to Lacanian ideas of the ‘self’.
Most inspiring research find so far?
I have just returned from a very exciting research trip to Paris! There I was able to see some actual Vionnet gowns at the Fashion Forward exhibition at Les Arts Décoratifs. Unfortunately I was not able to see the actual photographic albums held in their archive collection, due to them being in conservation. However I was able to see digitised versions of all the 75 albums, which in hindsight was good thing as there were thousands of photos to get through. Seeing the unpublished album photographs was inspiring as there were shots that really surprised me, including some half body photographs that looks strangely like prison mugshots, showing shirts that look as if they were designed by Ann Demeulemeester or Yohji Yamamoto.
Favourite place to work?
I love to switch up my routine and make sure that I work at many different cafes and libraries to best use all the (caffeine and) resources available to me. Of all the London libraries my favourite one to work at is the beautiful V&A National Art Library (preferably in a window seat overlooking the John Madjeski garden), but I normally find myself working more often at the British Library because it is more local to me and open later.
Dissertation research for my topic, Diane Von Furstenberg, has taken me on a colorful journey of the American fashion industry of the 1970s. With many thanks to Rebecca for lending me several books on the period, I’ve been lucky enough to encounter the gregarious and charming Roy Halston Frowick (April 23, 1932 – March 26, 1990). Halston (pronounced Hal-stone), as he became widely known when he rose to international fame in the 70s, is recognized as the creator of luxury American fashion, whose groundbreaking designs have influenced the aesthetic of the modern “American Look.” First known for his innovation in millinery (his hats graced the covers of Vogue), Halston used his signature materials of jersey, cashmere and suede to reinvent the jumpsuit, shirtdress and caftan.
Although Halston is constantly associated with the Studio 54 crowd and glamorous women of the era, it is his business ventures as a leading designer of made-to-measure who tried to break into the ready-to-wear clothing market that fascinate me. His career provides one of the first case studies of a designer who tried to design for the couture consumer and mass-market simultaneously.
Halston was born in the mid-west (De Moines, Iowa) to a humble family. After a somewhat difficult childhood, and a brief flirtation with higher education (he only completed one semester at Indiana University), he moved to Chicago in 1952 where he opened a small business in the preeminent Ambassador hotel as a milliner. Not long afterwards, in 1957 Halston moved to New York City where he worked his way up to become head milliner at Bergdorf Goodman. This opportunity provided an introduction him to society’s most well known and powerful, including none other than Jackie Kennedy, for whom Halston famously designed the pillbox hat.
After he left Bergdorf’s in 1968 to start his own business, he continued with millinery, reluctant to transition into ready-to-wear immediately. Interestingly, at this moment Halston began to explore with the idea of selling to both the up and down markets. He designed two separate lines: Halston USA, a lower-priced mass-market line, and Halston Ltd a higher-priced collection to be made in his custom workroom and sold at the high end department stores of the day, Neiman-Marcus and Bonwit Teller. When Halston USA sold over $200,000 in 1968 dollars wholesale in its first six weeks alone, Halston said, “And when you consider that the millinery market is dying on the vine, [it] said something to me.”
In September of ‘68 Halston announced the formation of his own ready-to-wear business with dresses priced at about $150, coats and suits, $200; officially cementing his transition from milliner to dress-maker (not unlike Chanel). His plan was to keep the line exclusive by restricting sales to one store in each major city, but keep it current in by sending new merchandise every six to eight weeks, which was perhaps an overly ambitious plan. Halston used the mass-market model to sustain his custom order business throughout the 70s– his ultimate aspiration was to become America’s couturier and open his own “house”. However, sadly, the tensions of balancing his brand’s exclusivity and profits ultimately overwhelmed the business itself.
In 1983, Halston signed a six-year licensing deal, worth a reported $1 billion, with J. C. Penney. The line, called Halston III, consisted of affordable clothing, accessories, cosmetics and perfumes ranging from $24 to $200. However, the move was extraordinarily controversial at the time, as no other high end designer had ever licensed their designs to a mid-priced chain retail store, and Bergdorf Goodman wasted no time dropping Halston Limited shortly after plans for Halston III were announced.
While Halston felt that the deal would only expand his brand, it in fact had damaged his image with retailers who felt that his name had been “cheapened”. As modern retailers such as Michael Kors struggle with the exact same issue, it is fascinating to see how, in fashion especially, history always seems destined to repeat itself.
In the past as for today, the fashion press often served as a space for the meeting of architecture, bodies and dress, each element casting the other in a certain light for readers to absorb. The multitude of architectural projects that marked post-Second World War Paris, ranging from corporate skyscrapers to housing estates, provided ample spatial prospects for magazines. The Maison de la Radio, constructed between 1952 and 1963, with its striking modernist features, was an ideal setting for their presentation of both haute couture and prêt-à-porter, and the dramatic, functional values they espoused. The building housed France’s main television station, the government-controlled Radiodiffusion-télévision française (RTF), whose new reports propagated the structure’s centrality and modernity. In 1963, for example, one described the new construction as ‘a victory against dispersion, disorder, discomfort and the dust of old buildings’. Its concrete, aluminium and glass structure consisted of a tall tower block and round wing enveloped by a circular building. It was so recognisable that an editorial in the February 1964 issue of Jardin des Modes, which depicted models in ready-made garments inside and beside the structure, didn’t identify it. In one image, a model in a wool blazer and pleated skirt designed by Christiane Bailly for the newly createdbrand Déjac stood on its outer circular edge with a view of the city in the background. Her statuesque, aerial stance paralleled the shape and position of the tower, and illustrated how the aesthetic of buildings affected poses, gazes onto bodies, and fashion’s role in reinforcing this behaviour for a wide public.
Moving imagery also captured the parallel between bodies and buildings, as television sets increasingly featured in French homes in the 1960s, adding a visual element to news broadcasts. In one 1963 RTF televised report, the camera panned the structure from several angles, emphasising its round, corporeal structure, as though eying a body. This panoramic scrutiny was necessary, given the building’s complexity, which made it appear differently from every angle, and difficult to photograph entirely and clearly. In another RTF report from December 1963, its architect Henry Bernard compared the circularstructure to a human body or face in that ‘everything grew from the inside.’ The building thus paralleled the centralisation of the city, whose arrondissements radiated from its midpoint, and the nation, with its political and cultural centre in Paris, as well as the way current events were dispersed from the Maison de la Radio to French citizens through television.
An editorial in a September 1965 issue of Elle made the connection between space, the moving image and the experience of fashion. Its text explained how pictured models in their couture garments were ‘filmed’ in the Maison de la Radio, ‘the most important monument of modern architecture in Paris’. Accompanying photographs by Terence Donovan dramatised and likened the garments and structure, through lighting, and a focus on angular shapes and the texture or shine of materials. Likewise, the text described clothing and dressmaking in architectural and pictorial terms: ‘Modern art coats. Couturiers sculpt fabric, contrast materials, play with colour masses, cut graphically… and they construct a coat or a suit that the eye perceives in one shot in a perfectly balanced image’. In one, a model in a sculptural coat and skirt ensemble by Roberto Capucci was cloaked in shadow, an illuminated figure against dark, imposing asymmetrical shapes. Shot from the same viewpoint as a still from the above-mentioned news report, the structure loomed over and enveloped her. Authoritative, panoptic space served to contain its subject, and this was heightened for viewers through narrative, cinematic imagery. As opposed to the earlier Jardin des Modes photograph in which the model’s dressed body was a site of modernity and centrality, here garment and architecture were highlighted, while bodies faded into the background. The image presaged how, increasingly into the 1960s, the dream of modernist progress and social idealism attached to these spaces would fade, as they began to stand for the state’s authority, as Henri Lefebvre described: ‘The arrogant verticality of skyscrapers, and especially of public and state buildings, introduces a phallic or more precisely a phallocentric element into the visual realm; the purpose of this display, of this need to impress, is to convey an impression of authority to each spectator’. The fashion press dispersed this message,whileshaping ways of seeing, and how individuals envisioned themselves in space.
Jardin des Modes, February 1964.
Elle, 2 September 1965, 11.
Henry Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991 ), 98.
“La Maison de la Radio’, Edition spéciale, ORTF, 5 September 1963, accessed from: https://www.ina.fr/video/CAF93073298.
‘Visite de la maison de la RTF’, RTF, 14 December 1963, accessed from: https://www.ina.fr/notice/voir/CAF96032435.
“She likes to stroll in the Paris of the past and ‘browse’ the antiques.” This text captured the mood of “Paris Promenade,” its accompanying fashion spread in the 21 April 1961 issue of Elle photographed by William Connors. In contrast to the model pictured in the upper right section of the page, who peered at the antique glasses within a shop, the image at the bottom left depicted a woman with an outward gaze stepping into the street. This model walked away from the relics of French design, symbolised by porcelain tableware in the shop window; she looked to the present and not the past, to the freedom offered by the street and not the encapsulation of the interior. But she did not leave Paris; rather, her bright pink shantung shirtdress, or “robe chemisier parisienne” marked her as unquestionably Parisian. From the late 1950s, the fashion press abounded in images of shirtdresses, unfitted dresses typically with button closure to resemble a tailored blouse. Here, the author described the garment as “classique,” but made sure to point out its novelty, made to look like a separate blouse and skirt with the addition of a gilt chain. Likewise, the dress, woman, automobile and the blurred presence of a hurried passer-by in the photograph became expressions of urban modernity when pictured against the architecture of medieval Paris. Modernity was a sensitive topic in 1950s and 1960s France, which was undergoing changes in terms of the modernisation of its clothing industry, cityscapes and the uncertain place of women. Fashion imagery thus negotiated between old and new in its visualisation of models, city and readymade fashion.
The image distinguished itself both from traditional full-page photographs in fashion magazines and those that showcased women posed against the backdrop of the iconic and beautiful city. Here, Connors was more concerned with exploring the interactions between the average woman and city spaces. Elements of the city—street, car, stranger—were presented to the viewer as though cropped from a larger picture, hurried moments of a longer period, Connors’ attempt at capturing ‘real’ life with a camera lens. The article drew on visual techniques of contemporary cinema such as Nouvelle Vague, at its height in the early 1960s, in its depiction of fragmentary moments and everyday reality. Readymade dress was appropriate in this spread, which showed the fashion of glamorous women in their daily life. The models were on display but not self-consciously ‘posed’, and brought to mind the way contemporary film directors, such as Godard and Truffaut sought ‘naturalism’ over ‘arranged’ visual compositions. This was the basic premise of this cinema, signalled earlier in Alexandre Astruc’s 1948 essay that predicted the age of the “camera-stylo.” That is, Astruc envisaged a cinematic form that resembled a language rather than a spectacle, forgoing “the image for its own sake, from the immediate and concrete demands of the narrative, to become a means of writing just as flexible and subtle as written language.” Many French directors applied these notions, which included the use of non-professional actors and the scenario-dispositif over pre-established scripts. Fashion images that were cropped, fleeting snapshots of everyday life, also inadvertently applied Astruc’s concepts.
Like the cinema’s abstract plotlines, photographs such as those by Connors hinted at a narrative. The imagery, as Charlotte Cotton described cinematic photography, triggeredreaders’collective unconscious andimaginary, so that “meaning is reliant on investing the image with our own trains of narrative and psychological thought.” Through the input of the reader in Connors’ photograph for instance, a narrative dared to unfold, one that questioned the psychological state of its female subject. This differed from 1950s narratives that offered whole pictures and totality, and often clearly depicted models’ activities. Albeit ambiguous, the narrative began by negotiating her access to the city, her step into the street made easier by the front inverted pleat of her readymade skirt, sold at Paris’ fashionable boutique Réal, “to walk easily.” Image construction, garment, city and reader thus worked together to depict an active, modern subject.
Anon. “Paris Promenade,” Elle, 21 April 1961, 92.
Alexandre Astruc, “La Caméra-stylo,” L’Ecran français, 30 March 1948, cited inThe New Wave: Critical Landmarks, ed., Peter Graham (New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1968), 20-22.
Peter Brunette, “But Nothing Happened: The Everyday in French Postwar Cinema,” in The Art of the Everyday: The Quotidian in Postwar French Culture (New York: New York University, 1997), 78-93.
Charlotte Cotton, The Photograph as Contemporary Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2014 ), 49.
At this point in the term we switch gear – you might think we’d be winding down for the holidays, but no, we like to keep the momentum going. So having spent the first eight weeks of the course looking at themes in dress and fashion history, we now focus in on our core period, 1920-60, and apply everything we’ve been talking about and thinking about thus far to this era.
But before we move on, I thought it would be good to reflect on what we’ve been up to these past months…
7 Themes discussed: definitions of dress, modernity, history & memory, dress as autobiography, vision and touch, empire & colonialism, portraiture
4 Storerooms & Archives visited: Fortnum & Mason, National Portrait Gallery, Museum of London, Courtauld Prints & Drawings
22 Seminar readings read
1 Presentation given – in front of a painting at Tate Britain, on the theme of empire
1 Film review written – on a clip chosen from the BFI’s archives
1 Formal essay written on one of the 7 themes discussed
8 Objects and images discussed that evoke personal connections to dress during the history
& memory class
10 Fashion magazines and rare books, spanning 16th – 20th century from the History of Dress collections studied during our very first class
1 Hand-painted Victorian family photo album examined during our discussion of sight & touch
3 Tutorials each – to talk through ideas and approaches to assignments
I wanted to begin my series of contributions to this blog with a bit of reflection upon my undergraduate work and a brief exploration of some of the fundamental intellectual questions I hope to pose in the year to come. In order to do so, I intend use Kara Walker’s 1994 work, Gone: An Historical Reference of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, as a vehicle for self reflection.
Walking into the first temporary exhibition hall at MoMA this past June, I was struck by this Walker work, which the curators installed on a gigantic stretch of wall. To say the work dominated the incredibly spacious gallery would be an understatement, but in typical 21st century fashion, a stream of visitors from all over the world merely glanced at the piece, posed for a snapchat to demonstrate their level of cultured privilege, and ultimately made their way into the adjacent chambers in search of MoMA’s treasure trove of modernist masterpieces. For me, however, the work presented an opportunity to view in person for the first time the palpable power of Walker’s aesthetic. The apparent paradox of a contemporary African American artist creating work almost exclusively in the antiquated Victorian tradition of silhouettes initially drew me to the work of Walker as a young Art History student at Davidson College. As a reductive art form, specifically in the sense of portraying a visual landscape through only the juxtaposition of black against white, the silhouette–at least in my humble opinion–possesses a highly racialized history. In other words, despite how the art form renders a figure as a black object in contrast to a stark white background, that figure almost exclusively in the history of the silhouette is presumed to be white. Further visual cues, such as dress and the physiognomy of a figure, convey the race, gender, and social status of the object of the artist’s gaze. Walker, however, transforms the genre into a visual platform of subversive alternative histories, clearly denoting through the physiognomy and dress (or lack there of) the diametric black versus white paradigm. This work specifically portrays a series of distinct vignettes in a larger collective story, but ultimately the delineation between the white, well dressed bodies of the figures in the far left section contrasts starkly with the rampant nudity and sexuality of the black bodies portrayed throughout the work with often hyper-exaggerated physical features including a gigantic penis and the stereotypical coon based imagery of over large feet.
Ultimately, Walker’s work represents a starting point for many of the issues I explored in my undergraduate thesis, a reaction to Paul Gilroy’s theory of the Black Atlantic. As I look forward to the work I will conduct this year, however, issues of racism, power, gender, and sexuality are at the heart of my academic work because in many ways these have each impacted my life in distinct fashion. Given my immense level of privilege as a white, American male from an upper middle class background, viewing the way the white, European Imperial/Colonial apparatus visually defines blackness in opposition to glorified constructs of purified and superior white identities speaks more profoundly to the perversion and exploitative nature of white patriarchal hegemony than it is representative of true black identities. For me, questions like how does European femininity in the 1920s re-appropriate primitivism and the sexuality of the black body to facilitate its own liberation from Victorian domesticity are central to understanding how European modernism, feminism, etc. emerged. The intersectionality of literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, the decorative arts, and (perhaps most relevant for this course) the history of dress all speak to the way certain power structures legitimize and perpetuate certain identities. That is what fascinates me and Walker’s discursive work subverts such a vehicle of hegemonic identity propagation to truly question how we perceive our world and its history.
This is an essay Rebecca Arnold co-wrote with film historian Adrian Garvey about the amazing 1945 melodrama Leave Her to Heaven , directed by John M. Stahl. The wonderful Marketa Uhlirova, founder and Director of Fashion In Film commissioned this piece for If Looks Could Kill– a festival and book on the theme of crime and violence in film and fashion in 2008.
The essay considers the psychological drama of this incredible 1940s film, and the stylish wardrobe worn by Gene Tierney, who plays Ellen, a dark and troubled character, who nonetheless epitomizes contemporary fashion and beauty ideals. We should warn you that there are lots of spoilers in the essay – so watch the film first if you don’t want to know what happens!
With many thanks to Marketa Uhlirova for granting permission for us to post this, and for her imaginative and inspiring work for Fashion In Film. If you want to read the other essays she commissioned for this season, look at the book she edited, If Looks Could Kill, Koenig Books with Fashion In Film Festival, 2008.