Category Archives: Work in Progress

Our research, our current ideas, and what we’re thinking about now

Readdressing Black Photographic History in Victorian Britain

Last week I accompanied my ‘Fashion and Photography: viewing and reviewing global images of dress over the last one hundred years’ undergraduate class to see the recent exhibition, co-curated by Renée Mussai and Mark Sealy MBE, at Autograph ABP, who are based at Rivington Place in Shoreditch. Black Chronicles II displays over two hundred never previously exhibited or published studio portraits of black subjects, including visiting performers, missionaries, students, dignitaries, servicemen or as of yet unidentified Britons, throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. The exhibition thus resurrects an unacknowledged archive of black photographic history in glass plate negatives and carte-de- visites held by the London Stereoscopic Company that have been buried in the Hulton Archive. Victorian Britain is re-presented in hauntingly beautiful and visually rich blown-up photographs, produced in a monochromatic palette and through a critical lens inspired by the influential writings of Jamaican born academic Professor Stuart Hall (1932-2014).

Highlights include portraits of Kalulu, the young companion to British explorer Henry Morton Stanley, and over thirty group and individual images of members of The African Choir (South African performers who travelled around the UK between 1891-3). Whilst these photographs reference Britain’s imperial and colonial past, and it would be easy to interpret them in terms of exotic ethnographic ‘types’, they unequivocally demonstrate black subjectivity through the self-assured styling of the sitters. Identities are fashioned through the use of props, accessories and fabrics, and the crispness and clarity of the reportage highlights these various textures. Gestures and poses are also employed to enable the sitters to consciously and thoughtfully engage with the photographer’s gaze. So, whilst it is important to understand the social, cultural and political conditions within which the photographs were produced, it is also vital that we readdress the images in terms of the subjects’ self-fashioning and self-presentation in order to fully understand the shifting asymmetries of power at play in black portraiture, then and now.

How Ginger Got the Job!


When researching American fashion advertising in the interwar period, I came across a J.C. Penney advertisement located in a 1939 edition of McCall’s Style News. The ad employs a comic book format, synthesising text and image to relay a narrative promoting the department store’s affordable, yet stylish fabrics. Readers are introduced to Ginger, a young woman who is initially portrayed as a pathetic character, a conventional trope of the tremendously popular comic book genre. After failing at her job interview, a defeated Ginger sorrowfully cries to her friend: ‘Oh Peg… What’s the matter with me?’ Peg proceeds to denounce Ginger’s dowdy dress and introduces her to the materials at J.C. Penney’s which Ginger uses to fabricate a stylish outfit for a second interview that she managed to get. Ginger is later pictured wearing her new patterned dress paired with a hat and bag, having successfully secured a job. The narrative ends with a neat resolution in which a newly confident and employed Ginger expresses her joyful realisation of the potential for fashion to elicit happiness and bolster confidence.

This advertisement sheds light on women’s shifting roles during the period and underscores the importance for women from all ranks of society to make sound fashionable choices. On the one hand, the advertisement affords women with power in that it situates women as viable and active participants in the working world, a realm previously associated exclusively with masculinity. The context of the Great Depression, along with the increasing visibility of women’s rights movements are two of several factors that resulted in more women needing to work. On the other hand, the advertisement problematically associates women’s success and happiness with outward appearance as opposed to ability and intellect. According to the advert’s narrative, Ginger failed to succeed in landing a job because of the dowdy nature of her clothing rather than a poor interview performance. Once she remedied her unfashionable appearance, she secured a job. Moreover, Ginger derives her newfound confidence not from the accomplishment of employment, but rather from her fashionable clothes, she expresses: ‘I never realized before how much confidence a smart outfit gives a girl!’ Additionally, she revels in the idea that she can be the ‘best dressed girl in the office’, as opposed to performing the best.

While fashion advertisements and comics are often deemed trivial, they play a hand at engendering, cementing and disseminating societal norms. Adverts such as the J.C Penney comic associate female success and happiness with appearance and, as a corollary, nourish the essentialist conception that women are merely ornamental. Although this advertisement dates back to the late 30s, the immense pressure for women to resemble beauty and fashionable ideals has persisted to the present day.

Midcentury Modelling Techniques

Matthew Dessner, 'So You Want To Be A Model' (1942) 7b. Scenes of model training
Matthew Dessner, ‘So You Want To Be A Model’ (1942) 7b. Scenes of model training

The model agent Matthew Dessner wrote that modelling had ‘something of the spirit of the dance’ because models could express ‘their personalities in its graceful accentuated steps, its swirling turns and pivots, its musical timing.’ Dessner here attempted to imbue the relatively new and commercial profession of clothes modelling with the artistry of a more historic discipline, the dance. Indeed, an accompanying photograph to Dessner’s 1943 manual, titled So You Want to be a Model?: The Art of Feminine Living shows a procession of girls walking ‘rhythmically and femininely’ in satin slips as they balance books on top of their pin-curled heads and are surveyed by the eagle-eyed gaze of Barbizon School of Modelling’s Director, Rosilyn Williams. In the vignette above, trainee models in mid-thigh-length skirts were further required to demonstrate a dancer’s sense of rhythm and spatial awareness, when they practiced walking and turning to foxtrot music. With the exception of sportswear, where skating and tennis skirts were cut above the knee, American mid 1940s skirts worn for more formal occasions were uniformly below knee-level.  The shorter skirts worn by modelling students evoked the brief garments worn in both ballet and contemporary dance studios, and enabled model instructors to view and correct their pupils’ natural bodies.

The trainee model was also expected to condition her figure through diet, exercise and in some cases, a little bust padding, until it approximated the preferred standard size 12  (34 inch bust and hips; 24 inch waist). Ideally, she should measure between 5’4 and 5’7 inches tall, however, smaller girls were selected to model Junior (teenage) clothes, while the more statuesque specialised in coats and eveningwear.  This sense of varied body types within a specification of uniformity was also common in classical ballet, where dancers were generally expected to have petite, toned figures, but were cast in line with their physicality. For example, smaller dancers often played ingénues, while taller dancers who towered over their male partners created femme fatale roles.

After she improved her figure, posture and walk, a trainee model had to develop a repertoire of professionalised gestures, which included subtly showcasing the ‘smart lines of a frock’, or causing ‘all eyes to focus on you when you make an entrance into a room.’ Olga Malcova, another model agent, professed that over time, a model’s quotidian movements would ‘naturally’ merge with the ‘gestures and mannerisms which are part of the profession…’and called ‘business’ by the industry insiders. Interestingly, while Malcova advised that the ‘business’ should be acquired ‘naturally’, rather than being copied from another model, Dessner stipulated that aspiring models should copy the poses they saw in magazines before a full-length mirror and ‘originate others they never thought about’. Striving for a balance between imitation and improvisation was common to dancers and models alike, as a young woman’s success in either discipline depended upon her ability to execute the required gestures seamlessly and differentiate herself from her peers.

However, unlike contemporary dancers, who wrote about their experiences in memoirs and left personal archives, models’ voices have been obscured over time. This discrepancy between the model and dancer’s trace suggests that although modelling techniques had much in common with dance, the former profession was associated with contemporary commerce above the posterity of art.


Matthew Dessner, So You Want to be a Model?: The Art of Feminine Living (Chicago: Morgan-Dillon & Co, 1943), 12.

Olga Malcova, Wanted: Girl With Glamor, (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1941), 25.

Complicating Portraiture and Ethnography in a Photograph from National Geographic, August 1926

Ethnography and Portraiture
A MAKU SQUAW AND HER HUSBAND: PARIMA RIVER (two photographs printed at the bottom)

Whilst flipping through a copy of National Geographic from August 1926 as part of my PhD research, which examines globalization and the representation of Brazilian dress in the magazine, I came across an intriguing image. It was of a man and woman of the Maku population, indigenous to the northwestern Amazon. On first glance, I interpreted it within the repressive protocols of an ethnographic study: a visual uniformity rendered by the full-body portrayal of the subjects, who were depicted one per frame, facing the camera in a bright, narrow space. The title of the photograph anchored such a reductive reading of the individuals depicted: ‘A MAKU SQUAW AND HER HUSBAND: PARIMA RIVER’.

Yet the caption, by contrast, set in motion a dialogue that oscillated precariously between passive objectification and subjective agency. The caption read: ‘the woman has decorated her shoulders with an old piece of cloth for the purpose of having her photograph taken’ [my italics]. The caption humanized the subject through the use of dress which rendered her as active and encouraged the viewer to interpret the photograph in terms of a self-aware and consciously styled portrait. Inherent is the suggestion that the previously marked and classified subject has deliberately and self-consciously fashioned herself for the photographer; this act suggests not simply an awareness of being on display, but a knowing and consensual performance that undermines a deterministic reading of the image.

Tamar Garb has delineated this slippage between the tradition of portraiture and racialised ethnography in her examination of the 19th-century colonial application of photography in South Africa, which she uses as a locus around which to discuss several examples of 21st century South African art photography:

‘Where the ethnographic deals in types, groups and collective characteristics, portraiture purports to portray the unique and distinctive features of named subjects whose social identities provide a backdrop for individual agency and assertion’.

Garb outlines the stipulations of ethnographic photography and portraiture and draws attention to the noticeable parallel between the characteristics that indicate the authoritarian measures of the former – full frontal exposure, visual uniformity, the minimization of light and shadow – with the individualizing tendencies of the latter. In National Geographic, this photograph can be viewed as a collaboration that reflected the choices of the individual, who was clearly a willing participant in the image-making process, choosing her own props, pose, expression and style of presentation. This willing and collaborative aspect, highlighted through the subject’s self-fashioning, displaces the institutionally imposed objectivity characteristic of ethnographic images of others, and complicates a straightforward reading of the image.


T. Garb, Figures and fictions: contemporary South African photography, (London: V & A Publishing, 2011), p. 12

How to Get In and Out of Taxis Wearing a Kimono

Kimono etiquette – from entering and exiting taxis, to sitting on a Western-style sofa
A guide to stairs, tea and doors
A variety of undergarments


To a certain degree the way we move is dictated by our choice in dress and clothing. The way we walk is governed by our choice in footwear. The way we carry our bodies is guided by the way we carry our bags. Or our length of skirt dictates the way we pick something up off the floor. But this is something that we learn for ourselves through experience, knowledge of one’s own clothing, or perhaps from embarrassing knicker-flashing mishaps. It is not taught to us, which is why, finding an instructional manual detailing how a woman should move in a kimono in contemporary situations, was entirely fascinating to me.

Upon going through my grandmother’s kimonos and possessions, I found in among the miscellaneous objects a brochure from 1969. The contents of the brochure seem bizarre and paradoxical: a clash of temporalities between the ancient traditions of the kimono and the modern Japanese woman.

The reader is instructed how to wear the kimono, showing the various undergarments and steps that build up towards the final image of the kimono we are accustomed to. However, there are also pages where the reader is taught how to move and function in modern social situations, whilst wearing a traditional kimono. One image educates a woman on how to enter and exit a taxi in the correct manner. Another shows the reader how to sit on a Western-style sofa. There are also instructions on how to conduct more traditionally Japanese activities: bowing, opening sliding doors and drinking tea without splashing hot water all up your sleeves. These instructions seem bizarre and comical in their simplicity, but demonstrate the change in the body’s movement when wearing a kimono, and how one is constantly aware of one’s actions in garments that are unfamiliar.

These instructional images and descriptions jar with our autonomous understanding of our own body’s movements and how clothes affect them. The fact that women were shown how to move, when they wore this clothing is symptomatic of the problematic position of the kimono in Japanese society, as it is a form of dress that is slowly dying, becoming a cultural relic of Japan. As the roles of modern women have changed in Japanese society, the multi-layered and restrictive kimono is worn less and less. In modern Japan, the average person will wear ‘Western’ clothing, whilst the Kimono has been sidelined to a role denoting national identity and old-world traditions. This has not only led to a decline in the silk industry and the artistry of the kimono, but has led to a loss of understanding of how a kimono is worn, something that was traditionally passed down from mother to daughter.

The brochure is revealing of attempts in the 60s and 70s to reposition the kimono in a modern society, so as to preserve its significance in Japan. The depicted alterations and accessories that create comfort and ease highlight the tensions between old and modern post-war Japan. An attempt that is still being made today with efforts to reinvigorate the Japanese silk industry, and the wearing of the kimono at important events. However, without education in how a kimono is worn, these anxieties and tensions will endure.


Kennedy, Alan. “Kimono.” The Berg Fashion Library. 2005. (accessed 15 Nov. 2014).

Milhaupt, Terry. “Kimono.” The Berg Fashion Library. Sept. (accessed 15 Nov. 2014).

‘Unfit for Ladies’: A sensorial reading of Keats’ The Eve of St Agnes

Madeline after Prayer (from John Keats, The Eve of St. Agnes, st
Madeline after Prayer (from John Keats, The Eve of St. Agnes, stanza XIX, lines 4-5) After Daniel Maclise, Etching and engraving of chine collè, 1871, 61.5 x 44.1 cm, Metrpolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Whilst recently browsing through Entwistle’s The Fashioned Body I came across a passage describing the shortcomings of the costume museum with regards to the understanding of a garment:

“What it cannot tell us is how the garment was worn, how the garment moved when on a body, what it sounded like when it moved and how it felt to the wearer. Without a body, dress lacks fullness and movement; it is incomplete.”[1]

This got me thinking about the body upon which she places so much responsibility. Must the body be alive? Is it a present day body? How about a static body in a photo or picture?  How about a mannequin, or a fictional body? That evening, by some uncanny coincidence, a friend passed a beautiful edition of Keats’ Selected Works over to me and I opened it up at random. I began to read and realised that I had landed on one of the most sensually arousing descriptions of a dress in nineteenth century literature. The Eve of St Agnes tells the story of a young virgin who hurries herself off to bed on this special feast night having heard that she may have “visions of delight”.[2] Meanwhile, Porphyro – a smitten young admirer- has snuck into her room to watch her undress. There is a risqué interplay of religious eroticism at work- he swoons at her piety whilst watching her rush through her evening prayers- unbeknownst to him she’s just after these sweet dreams. In this poem, clothes are endowed with life. Even before the poetic striptease begins, Keats uses an anthropomorphic image by describing the female guests at the party as “many a sweeping train /Pass by”. The personified dresses do not require a body to exude a sense of movement. At the pinnacle of the poem, Keats’ tableau vivant is quasi-religious again. Madeline’s chamber is set against a large ornate arched casement. Imagery of sensual excess surrounds this structure as Keats describes the engravings and glass as oozing with “fruits and flowers” […] stains and splendid dyes”. The moon, almost as if a theatrical spotlight, bursts onto this rich tableau – throwing “warm gules on Madeline’s fair breast” and reminding us that the object of desire here is of an erotic nature. Keats’ slow motion striptease is the apex of the poem:

“Anon his heart revives: her vespers done,
Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
Half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed,
Pensive awhile she dreams awake, and sees,
In fancy, fair St Agnes in her bed,
But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.”

The pace of the poem is skilfully measured out linguistically- we can relate to the time consuming task of removing all the pearls from one’s hair. The jewellery pieces come off one by one and the bodice is loosened by degrees. For someone eagerly awaiting nightly visions Madeline does not seem to be in a hurry at all, and this tempo adds to the anticipation. This sensory unveiling of the body is by no means restricted to the visual senses. Madeline’s “warmed jewels” and “fragrant bodice” alongside her luxurious dress that “creeps rustling” are powerful conduits of touch, smell and sound. Keats’ gift lies in being able to communicate in words “the experience of a sound, a color, a gesture, of the feelings of arousal”[3], conjuring up, I would argue, the movement and fullness that the museum garment of Entwistle is lacking. It is this haptic immediacy that a museum lacks, and not a body. So, as debauched as Porphyro’s lingering eye may seem, we do not condemn it: the sensory description of erotic cloth is enough to give life to the dress and we, as readers, are as captivated.  In Keats’ poem, “cloth is a message carrier for both for desiring and being desired.”[4] No wonder it was deemed “unfit for ladies”.[5]

[1] Entwistle, Joanne, The Fashioned Body, (Cambridge: Polity, 2000) p.10


[3] Laura U. Marks, Touch, p.1


[5] Bennet, Andrew, Keats, Narrative and Audience (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1994) p.5

‘Addressing Images,’ Brown Bag Discussion Group

collage image by Alexis Romano

collage image by Alexis Romano


Friday 6 February, 2015

12:30-14:00, Research Forum South Room, The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, WC2R 0RN

This series of brown bag events opens up discussion of dress’ significance within imagery – whether paintings, prints, photographs, advertisements, film stills or drawings. It brings together dress and art historians, as well as those interested in exploring issues and meanings within representation. A single image will be shown in each session, giving participants the opportunity to re-examine familiar, and confront new representations of fashion and dress. We will rethink images through the lens of dress history, and consider what is shown from the perspective of participants’ own research. The aim is to provide a forum to debate, share reactions to images, and to consider ideas about fashion, dress and representation in an informal environment. This is part of our celebration of fifty years of History of Dress at The Courtauld, and reflects our desire to share and build upon the innovative work being undertaken in this field at the Institute with the wider community, and beyond.

Open to all, free admission.

Taking place over the lunch hour, these sessions are open to all – though it is necessary to register to attend – and a packed lunch will be provided.

Next session will be held on Friday 27 February

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays to All Our Readers!

Gazette du Bon Ton, Jan 1914, no. 1
Gazette du Bon Ton, Jan 1914, No. 1

As a special ‘thank you’ to all our readers, we wanted to give you a copy of the booklet (PDF) to go with the Winter Mode display we curated for the Fashioning Winter exhibition currently on show at Somerset House.

Those of you who follow the blog will be aware of the various stages of curation and installation that we went through, and this included putting together the booklet, inspired by the wonderful fashion journals in our collection.

For the booklet, we used images from these to illustrate it and were lucky enough to have Amy Preston, who worked on the exhibition as a whole, design the font and layout.

The booklet was made possible by Oak Foundation’s generosity – and we really hope you will enjoy reading it.

The exhibition is full of treasures, and encourages you to explore Somerset House and think about the different kinds of seasonal fashions of the past hundred years or so, and the ways these have been designed and represented. It runs until 11 January 2015, so do come along if you’re in London.

May it inspire your own winter fashions!

Thank you for supporting our blog.

Happy Holidays!

From all The Courtauld’s Dress Historians.

Gazette du Bon Ton, 1921, no. 10
Gazette du Bon Ton, 1921, No. 10


Fashion on the Ice and Snow (1940), Prelinger Archive 


As this promotional film for Sacony, ‘America’s Number One Name in Sportswear’ attests, winter fashions have long been a preoccupation. And as those of us who are lucky enough to work at Somerset House know, the ice rink makes a dynamic addition to our everyday landscape, its shining surface and the perpetual movement of its visitors, a stark contrast to the regimented architecture and grey skies above.  While most of us probably reach for jeans when we go skating, the 1940s fashions shown in the film suggest a more self-conscious approach to dressing, in terms of both style and practicality. I thought it would be interesting to watch the film as part of our series of ‘Winter Mode’ posts, which reflect on the research and ideas generated from our display for Fashioning Winter.

The film glides – literally and figuratively – from black and white scenes of skiers shooting down snow-clad mountains, to a full-colour show of skating and related fashions. The breathless commentary reflects the speed of the winter sports, and gives a sense of urgency to the images. Movement and landscape are used to entice consumers to associate Sacony – a brand that developed in the 1920s – with garments that work with the body, enhancing skill, while remaining stylish.

The narrator conflates wearer, activity and dress, stating that the clothes are ‘just as strong as the American girl.’ And the outfits shown celebrate adaptability and attention to detail – they are designed and manufactured to fit closely, protecting wearers from the cold and wet, ensuring they stay in place, even during a fall in the snow.

The first section mimics documentary film, its stark black and white footage mirroring sports coverage of the time and adding to the sense of professionalism. Whereas the later section focuses on fashion expertise, with models presenting Sacony’s range outside, against a backdrop of chalets and other après ski scenes. This colour section leans on spectacle – first a skating display of women in identical, ultra feminine outfits that speak of the ballet dancer, rather than the workwear inspirations that dominate the styles shown next.  These comprise neat bomber jackets and trousers, tucked into sturdy boots. Tops are reversible, pockets edged with colours, as primaries and darker shades are combined to provide a sense of dynamic layers. Practicality is paramount – we are told that ‘no snow sneaks inside’ the special inner cuffs used to keep the wearer completely warm and dry. There is a continual sense of optimism – the film is edited to give viewers the sense of move seamlessly from rink or ski slope to ‘Winter Wonderland’ resort. We are encouraged to imagine the feel of the clothes, as models slide gauntlet gloves off and on, squeeze them into pockets and the rich colours allow us to think of the experience of wearing soft wool sweaters under fitted jackets.

The mix of masculine/unisex separates is again quite different from the skating ensembles shown. These retain the limited but striking colour range, while bringing focus to the women’s legs, with full, knee-length skirts that have bright linings. These would spool out from the body while skating, adding vivid reds to the monochrome of the ice rink.

The film’s final shot reinforces Sacony’s message. A line up of models wear the full spectrum of its range – from the skiwear shown, to swimsuits and ‘spectator’ sportswear, the casual, but smart separates for everyday wear that would become a defining feature of American fashion. We are also reminded of ready-to-wear’s promise: Sacony boasts that its garments are both good quality and reasonably priced, and, the final sleight of hand of mass-manufactured fashion, ‘Very Exclusively Yours.’

032c re-present Kirsten and Juergen collaboration for Autumn/Winter 2013/4

Screenshot from SHOWstudio’s Subjective Project – Kristen McMenamy by Juergen Teller
032c, Issue #25, Winter 2013/14
032c, Issue #25, Winter 2013/14
032c, Issue #25, Winter 2013/14

Whilst hunting for photographs to accompany the BA3 course that I am teaching this term at The Courtauld with Dr Rebecca Arnold, entitled ‘Fashion and Photography: viewing and reviewing global images of dress’, I stumbled across an intriguing yet mildly unsettling fashion spread by German photographer Juergen Teller. Commissioned by the German magazine, 032c, for the Winter 2013/14 edition, it captured the veteran 1990s supermodel Kristen McMenamy, now 47 years old and with long silvery-blonde hair, in an 18-piece one-off tribute to Elsa Schiaparelli designed by Christian Lacroix. The series, which draws upon the bizarre, the grotesque and the abject, was shot on a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, and makes use of unsettling trompe l’oeil through eccentric props that include fluffy pompoms, the entrails of a slimy sea creature and the pulpy insides of a watermelon. At times McMenamy is a passive and inert, her long hair flopping forward over her limp naked form that is splattered with dirt and mud, but elsewhere she is active and aware, peeping over a rusting metal fence in bright red and pink pompoms like a demonic Minnie Mouse figure.

Teller first shot an androgynous looking McMenamy in a controversial documentary-style shoot for Suddeutsche Zeitung in 1996.  A memorable snapshot from this candid series is tempered with a sleazy provocative charge and features McMenamy standing in a confrontational pose, naked except for a haphazard collection of necklaces and bracelets draped around her neck and wrists. She faces Teller’s 35mm camera directly with an open, nonchalant gaze, her hands placed on her hips, her bare chest thrust forward, and her uncovered crotch fully exposed to the harsh flash. Her pale, bruised and mottled skin is illuminated as she stands against an open doorway, a limp cigarette protruding from the right-hand side of her mouth. Her eyes are heavy-lidded and her appearance is dishevelled, with her hair closely cropped. She bears the label ‘VERSACE’ scrawled in dark red lipstick, encased in a crudely drawn heart, across the centre of her chest. This image, shot in collaboration with Teller, is given a raw, confrontational edge through the pared down gritty ‘realist’ aesthetic that stands out in stark contrast to the faked glamour of high production fashion shoots popular throughout the 1980s. McMenamy has since explained that this shoot was her reaction to having a high profile Versace campaign cancelled at the last minute with no explanation. It was she who scrawled the label across her chest, in an attempt to dispense with the measured and preconceived strategies of glossy high fashion photography, and instead embrace the ugly flip side of the unsightly, unappealing and outright provocative.