Category Archives: Work in Progress

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

Fashioning the Other? Globalization and the representation of Brazilian dress in National Geographic since 1988

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During the lecture with Rita Andrade, who helped with translation.
The pull-out section of ‘Within the Yellow Border…’, National Geographic, September 1988.
Image from ‘Last Days of Eden’, National Geographic, December 1988.

On 9 April 2014, whilst on a research trip in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, I was invited by Professor Rita Andrade to give a paper at the Universidade Federal de Goiás, Brazil. This is a short extract from my paper, which examined National Geographic’s representation of Brazil through dress since the magazine celebrated its centennial in September 1988.

Reproduced within the centennial edition of National Geographic in September 1988 were all of the magazine covers published to date, on a 2-metre wide double-sided pull-out section. The thick glossy pages unfolded as far as the arms could stretch and played with the affective capacities of the beholder. To view the covers in their entirety, the beholder was required to hold the magazine in their hands and realign their body in relation to it: to press their chest forwards, to move their face closer to inspect the small printed details, to achieve a sensory relation with the textured surface and smell of the recently printed pages. This article will argue that the centennial edition of National Geographic was designed not merely to be read, but to be felt too. It initiated a shift, in which the magazine has sought to communicate with its readership not only in terms of linguistic signification or effect, but through the sensations, memories, emotions or affect that images of Brazilian dress have evoked in the National Geographic viewer.

Within the article the then editor of National Geographic, Wilber E. Garrett (1980-1990) commented (my italics): ‘Though I can’t relate to all of them, these covers mark a century of holding up to the world our uniquely objective publishing mirror’. He then asserted a point of departure from the magazine’s previous editorial objectives, by declaring the need for ‘a once-in-a-century bit of introspection holding up the mirror to ourselves for a change… we’re looking ahead to the next 100 years.’ Representation does not simply mirror but actively constructs, manufacturing the objects of its gaze as much as registering them: it is in this sense that each photograph reproduced in National Geographic has necessarily extended, altered and distorted the metaphorical ‘mirror’ originally held up by the National Geographic photographer or National Geographic author to his or her subject.

An example can be seen in a photograph that appeared in a National Geographic article in December 1988 entitled ‘Last Days of Eden: Rondonia’s Urueu-Wau-Wau Indians’. It captured a young girl as she stared at her reflection in a shiny silver and green balloon which she held in her right hand, whilst she traced the contours of her face with her left hand. A caption underneath the photograph read: ‘Captivated by her own image, an Urueu-Wau-Wau girl studies a plaything from another world at an outpost of Funai, Brazil’s National Foundation for the Indian’. Materiality is central to a viewer’s visual interpretation of this image. Viewers have a heightened awareness of their own bodies as they sit in quiet contemplation of the magazine, which is held in their hands or perhaps rested on their lap, and flip through the smooth, silky pages – possibly even handing them to another family member or friend for consideration. This bodily engaged way of viewing images in National Geographic focuses the act of looking, and draws attention to the act of looking being performed by the subject of the photograph, who stares at her own reflection in the shiny surface of the balloon whilst stroking her cheek. This engenders a feeling of identification between viewer and subject, despite the disparities in geographical location and generational experience, through the viewer’s own heightened awareness of being-in-the-world. As Eugenie Shinkle has pointed out, ‘So-called “mirror neurons” in the brain fire not only when we perform a particular action ourselves, but when we witness someone else performing it.’ Shinkle has examined the process by which, when we look at the postures and gestures made by a body (in this case, the girl tracing her reflection on the skin of her face) we do not simply read it in terms of a represented body, but we map these postures and gestures onto our own body. National Geographic self-reflexively plays with the performative nature of image-making through the use of gesture, which produces a heightened awareness of the process of looking in the National Geographic viewer. The use of gesture invites empathy between subject and viewer on a bodily level, as the subject movements are synchronized with the viewer’s own physical, emotional and intellectual being.

Garrett, W. E. (1988) ‘Within the Yellow Border…’, National Geographic, 174:3, September,
p. 270-286.

McIntyre, L. (with photographs by W. Jesco von Puttkamer) (1988) ‘Last Days of Eden: Rondonia’s Urueu-Wau-Wau Indians’, National Geographic, 174:6, December, p. 804.

Shinkle, E. (2010) ‘The Line Between the Wall and the Floor: Reality and Affect in Contemporary Fashion Photography’, in Shinkle, ed., Fashion as Photograph: Viewing and Reviewing Images of Fashion, London and New York: I. B. Tauris, p. 220.

Hints, Hobbies and Definitions of Fashion

‘Hints on Making an Evening Dress from a Morning Frock’ is an excerpt from the 1926 cinemagazine Hints and Hobbies. The series, produced by A. E. Coleby and S. Mumford, consisted of several instalments that supplied audiences with advice on matters that ranged from the usefulness of jiu-jitsu to optimal suggestions on restyling a hat in six different ways. As the subject matter indicates, this new genre of film was targeted at women who made up the majority of cinemagoers in the interwar period. As a key source of fashion information, cinemagazines, along with newsreels, Hollywood films and printed magazines, provided women with a treasure trove of contemporary styles from which they could select what suited their budgets and needs. Their miscellaneous advice therefore reflected the diversification of female lifestyles in the interwar period, which stimulated the need for an adaptable wardrobe suited to the pursuit of dynamic modern interests.

‘Hints on Making an Evening Dress from a Morning Frock’ is a Cinderella story tailored to contemporary needs and desires. The young girl is quickly transformed by her mother’s dexterous adjustments, presumably allowing her to go out for an evening of dancing, one of the most popular leisure activities in the 1920s. This fictional re-enactment of a scene gleaned from everyday life illustrates contemporary attitudes towards fashion and entertainment. Instead of framing fashion as a novelty attraction, the economic adaptability of current styles is emphasised. Accessories such as the lace, buckles and fake flowers that are added to the garment would have been available for purchase at department stores such as John Lewis or Whiteleys, which catered to home dressmakers. Through alterations of their existing clothing, working and lower middle-class women could participate in the collective process of fashion and express their individuality in creative ways.

The transformation of the dress also serves as a pretext to promote inter-generational female bonding. Cinemagazines frequently showed mothers and daughters collaborating on making objects for and in a domestic setting as a popular pastime. The mother’s active role in transforming her daughter for a night of dancing suggests her approval, and downplays the rebellious potential of a young woman wearing revealing evening attire in an unchaperoned social setting. ‘Hints on Making an Evening Dress from a Morning Frock’ illustrates how fashion and mass media are inextricably linked. While many assume that modern media promotes passive consumption of commodities and images, these examples demonstrate that they also have the potential to foster a creative involvement with fashion. Instead of simply providing a reflection of what fashions dominated the latter half of the 1920s, ‘Hints on Making an Evening Dress from a Morning Frock’ signals what it meant to be fashionable and how this could be achieved.

See ‘Hints on Making an Evening Dress from a Morning Frock’ here:


Barnes, R., and Eicher, J. B., eds. (1993) Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning in Cultural Contexts, Oxford: Berg.

Buckley, V., and Fawcett, H. (2002) Fashioning the Feminine: Representation of Women’s Fashion from the Fin de Siecle to the Present, London: I.B. Tauris.

Hackney, F. (2006) ‘ Use Your Hands for Happiness ’: Home Craft and Make-do-and-Mend in British Women’s Magazines in the 1920s and 1930s,’ Journal of Design History Vol. 19 No. 1.

Hammerton, J. (2001) For Ladies Only? Eve’s Film Review: Pathe Cinemagazine 1921-33, Hastings: Projection Box.

Kuhn, A. (2002) An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory, London and New York: I.B. Tauris.

Re-Thinking The Experience And Representation Of Dress

Image for Study Day Essay

Image 2 for Study Day Essay

On 6 May 2014, we held a study day, Documenting Fashion: Re-Thinking The Experience And Representation Of Dress, at The Courtauld’s Research Forum. This day was the result of a collaboration between the Andrew W Mellon Foundation MA 2013/14: Documenting Fashion: Dress, Film and Image in Europe & America, 1920-45, and Fashion Research Network.

This is an extract from Dr Rebecca Arnold’s keynote talk, Wearing and Viewing Fashion in 1920s America, which focuses on 1min 49secs-3mins 15 secs of this film from the Prelinger Archives: click to see film.

The clip shows how people move and display their bodies at the pool – its jerkiness and speed only serve to highlight the jumps between swimwear and more formal promenade dress. Surfaces are continually displayed and broken, to provoke haptic responses within the viewer – the pool’s surface is breached by the divers, as their bodies impact the water, a repeated action that echoes the movement of the film through the projector, as they circle back for another dive. Their hair becomes slick and their costumes dark and heavy, saturated by water. Their dress and bodies’ materiality is twinned with their emotions’ materiality. Their vigour and joy as water touched skin is made manifest by the film’s own surfaces and movement. The swimmers’ happy faces provoke emotion in viewers – both at the pool, and in the viewing room. This emotional, tactile, visual response remains for us to experience now. In the 1920s, this would have been newer and more intense. Young women parade for, but also shy away from the camera’s stare, wrapped in short, graphic kimonos that add a Hollywood swagger to their simple unisex swimming costumes.  They are aware, if only dimly at this point in history, of how to behave for such scrutiny. Their movements are only slightly adjusted and modified for its gaze, but, like their peers, they remain amateurs – uncertain whether to acknowledge the camera’s presence. They occasionally return its stare, but through sidelong glances, cautious, about paying it too much attention. As Ian Craven has noted of amateur film: ‘At the same time, in their organisation of image, editing, point-of-view and camera movement, such films also disclose symptomatic family dynamics and gender roles on holiday, as well as broaching significant issues of authorship and control.’  The swimmers’ impromptu combinations of knitwear and bathing suits, everyday and leisure wear twinned with active sports clothes, underlines this blurriness. They perform their gender roles and fulfill audience expectations of what happens at the pool, but there is also an element of surprise and spontaneity in their actions and dress adaptations. The idealisation of reality – as depicted in this film, repeated and instilled the idea of the perfect day by the pool, the right way to play on the beach, dress for the promenade. Richard Koeck and Les Roberts have discussed film’s particularlity in this instance: ‘… The medium of the film creates a spatial depth that is different to that of other forms of visual representation. The framing of the location, the lack of colour, the richness of the picture contrast, the movement of the shutter, and, not least, the unedited nature of the footage render real spaces in a new light that is specific to the magical and photogenic properties of early film’. Thus, when seen in relation to fashion editorial and advertising imagery and other contemporary media, it is possible to track emergent forms of realism that are symbiotic with spectacle and conscious display.


Craven, I., ed. (2009) Movies on Home Ground: Explorations in Amateur Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.

Koeck, R. and Roberts, L. (2010) ‘Introduction: projecting the Urban’, in Koeck, R. and Roberts, L. (eds.) The City and the Moving Image: Urban Projections, London: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 10.

The Social History of Lipstick: Why 1920s Beauty Journalism is useful for more than just retro make-up tips


“Beauty is the last true thrill left us in a mechanized age,” wrote American Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld in his foreword to beauty editor Josephine Huddleston’s 1929 book Secrets of Charm, “it is a precious gift that cannot be standardized. Everything else is routined and regulated and ordered but beauty cannot be had for the asking”. Ziegfeld’s opening declaration to this comprehensive volume, which details everything from skin and haircare to ‘how to cultivate a sweet smile’ immediately reveals more of the changing social climate of 1920s America than even the most ironclad social manifesto. The advent of new technology and social order dominated contemporary thought, while evolving attitudes to traditional femininity remained central to shifts within gender roles and occupations. It is for this reason that such unintentionally political literature assumes a significant value to anyone hoping to analyse or investigate the social landscape of any given historical period.

As the editor of a beauty column which boasted a readership of nearly seven million American women, Josephine Huddleston had “an unusual opportunity to study women’s needs” from the 1920s onwards. Years of such accidental research resulted in a publication that offered advice on not only the practicalities of maintaining a period-specific aesthetic allure (‘applying bleach paste for stubborn freckles’ and ‘how to promote growth of lashes’ are just two examples) but, more crucially, on the cultivation of an inner “charm [that was] far more vital than physical beauty alone”. Her descriptions of this so-termed ‘charm’ illuminate contradictory feelings about both the role and desires of women of this period:

It is the power that takes a chorus girl out of tights and puts her name in electric lights. It is the power that makes the Only Man place a diamond circlet upon the finger that tells the world you are his to love, cherish and protect for as long as you both shall live. And it is the power that makes most women hate with a burning intensity the woman who has it, for women know its great influence.

Huddleston’s conclusion that charm and beauty are essential to both a woman’s accomplishment of individual professional status and the securing of a husband who can provide for them is highly telling of a contemporary tension between women’s growing independence and an attitude to domestic ‘destiny’ and desire that might, today, be considered borderline sexist and stereotypical. “To be beautiful, one must be in love”, she declares, before adding: “it is not essential that one be in love with a man, but one must have something…whether it be husband or hobby”. Huddleston obviously remains acutely aware of such conflicts, and it is thus through the use of cosmetic preparations, fashion, exercise and deportment that she suggests a solution to this double-edged sword of femininity:

It is true that women, in surprisingly large numbers, are nursing the idea of economic independence because they are bringing home round dollars in sizable amounts each week- dollars that have been earned by their own efforts. But…Man is still the controlling figure in the world…[and] he expects women to profit by his efforts in an intelligent way and his idea of intelligence is beauty and charm. We may rebel at the idea, but we can’t change the fact.

To a modern reader, this book is undoubtedly a fascinating vintage gem, brimming with humorously outdated advice on sick bed beauty and superfluous body hair while simultaneously revealing the origins of much sworn-by old wives’ tales and cementing their tried-and-tested effectiveness. Yet, within its yellowed pages, we also become privy to a unique condensation of contemporary attitudes, norms and yearnings that reveal as much about the precarious position occupied by Western women during the 1920s as the correct medium for painting one’s lips at the time of press (good old-fashioned rouge, now you ask). Of course, it is only with the benefit of historical hindsight that such conventions and prejudices are truly exposed, but the book’s underlying philosophy is one that still rings true today, and can be related to whatever our social status, romantic situation or professional occupation: “is there anything lovelier than the habit of beauty?”


Huddleston, J. (1929) Secrets of Charm, New York and London: G.P.Putnam’s Sons.

The ‘neue frau’ and fashion in Otto Dix’s ‘Three Prostitutes’ (1925)

Otto Dix’s Three Prostitutes (1925) is a painting that draws attention to the ambiguous figure of the New Woman in Weimar Germany. The Neue Frau was a complex cultural construct whose independent habits – shopping, enjoying the city’s bustling night-life, working – were seen as a cause for both celebration and anxiety; as signs of progressive civil liberties, as well as of society’s moral degradation. Although a greater number of women engaged in public life than before during this period – in 1925 about a third of the country’s female population was in the workforce – their unprecedented visibility was far from unproblematic. The fashionable female body became a key topic of debates on sexuality, morality and politics, with the New Woman becoming more of an abstracted concept than a social reality as a result. In fact, it is important to point out that although the term was evoked repeatedly, there was not a definitive type of Neue Frau. Rather, the way in which women engaged with modernity was determined by a number of factors such as class, marital status and geography. Nevertheless, a preoccupation with modern typologies is evident in Dix’s painting, whose female protagonists simultaneously refer to the pervasive practice of prostitution while also serving as caricatures of consumerist culture.

The link between prostitution and fashion was frequently made during this period, perhaps most famously articulated by Thomas Wehrling, a Weimar cultural critic. His essay ‘Berlin is Becoming a Whore,’ first published in Das Tage-Buch in 1920, explicitly aligns women’s interest in fashion and entertainment with moral debasement:

‘A generation of females has grown up that has nothing but the merchandising of their physical charms in mind. They sit in the parlors, of which there are a dozen new ones every week; they go to the cinema in the evenings, wear skirts that end above the knees, buy Elegant World and the film magazines…The display windows in the delicatessens are filled for these females; they buy furs and shoes at the most-extravagant prices and stream in herds down the Kurfurstendamm on Sunday mornings’.

In many ways, Dix’s painting can be perceived as elaborating on this seemingly new kind of fashionable female behaviour, especially through its central figure, a woman wearing a red cloche hat and veil. Her fashionable appearance, signalled by details such as the cropped Bubikopf hairstyle, may confuse viewers at first, however the prostitute’s provocative stance as she hitches up her skirt explicitly signals her profession. This pose may have been derived from real life as well as from fashion magazines. Prostitutes were forbidden to solicit potential clients verbally therefore they employed gestures and dress codes to communicate their availability to customers. Sartorial details such as a specific colour of laced boots would signal a woman’s ‘specialty.’ This practice may be referenced by another figure in the painting, the heavily made up older woman wearing red leather gloves on the left. Were it not for this subtle, yet erotically charged accessory, her disapproving facial expression and elegant attire would qualify her as a ‘respectable’ bourgeois stroller.

The sense of ambiguity is heightened by an image of a woman’s leg in the background. It is unclear whether the high-heeled limb stepping on a globe appears on a poster or in a shop window. It is possible that the red initials “RM” reference the Reichs Mark, introduced in 1924 to stabilise the German economy. It may also allude to the visibility of women’s legs as a result of shorter hemlines, in revue performances, advertisements for silk stockings or all of the above. It also recalls Wehrling’s description of display windows filled with desirable consumer goods. However in the painting this appears in inverted form, as it is the prostitutes, clad in fashionable articles, who are displayed as merchandise in one of the shopping streets of Weimar Berlin. Furthermore, the conflation of woman as commodity in this case could also have quite a literal source, as it was not uncommon to have mannequins modelling store wares in the display window for a riveted audience. Dix’s painting therefore intentionally compounds aspects of femininity as seen at night, on the street and in media imagery in order to blur the boundaries between woman as consumer and commodity in Weimar Berlin.

For an image of Otto Dix’s Three Prostitutes please click here.


von Ankum, K. (1997) ‘Gendered Urban Spaces in Das Kunstseidene Mädchen’, in von Ankum, K. (ed.) Women in the Metropolis: Gender and Modernity in Weimar Culture, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.

Buruma, I. (2006) ‘Faces of the Weimar Republic’, in Rewald, S. (ed.) Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Ganeva, M. (2008) Women in Weimar Fashion: discourses and displays in German culture, 1918-1933, Rochester, New York: Camden House.

Kaes, A., Jay, M., and Dimendberg, E. (1994) The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press.

Weitz, E. D. (2007) Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Fashioning American National Identity: Team USA’s Ralph Lauren Uniforms at the Olympic Opening Ceremony

On 7 February, the athletes of the 88 nations competing in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia paraded into Fisht Olympic Stadium. As an American, I felt unexpectedly proud as I watched Team USA, led by flag bearer Todd Lodwick, march into the stadium in their red, white, and blue patchwork uniforms, designed and made in America by heritage brand Ralph Lauren. In this singular event, prior to the start of the actual competitions, the patriotically clad bodies of the American Olympic athletes united ideas of sport and fashion and became a symbol of national identity.

Dress historian Christopher Breward has argued that many connections exist between the spectacle of sporting and sartorial performance, and they became especially apparent on the bodies of America’s Olympians during the Parade of Nations. Through these bodies, physically fit and dressed to match the familiar colours of the American flag, Team USA presented itself as a national symbol that embodied athletic strength and foreshadowed the country’s victory in the Games. This display of fashion and athletic prowess was partially directed towards their international peers and competitors. However, Olympians also aimed to inspire feelings of pride and admiration from eager American fans across the globe. These shared emotions of, what Breward described as ‘anticipation and excitement’ are characteristic of both fashion and sport, and, when presented together in this event, evoked nationalist sentiment among American viewers.

The athletes’ patchwork roll-neck cardigans, emblazoned with the stars and stripes, the Olympic rings, and the iconic Polo Ralph Lauren logo, seemed both luxurious and comfortable, classic and modern. This sportswear aesthetic, according to Rebecca Arnold, is an ‘identifiably American form of dressing.’ Known for his fashionable yet active designs, Ralph Lauren has become an icon of America’s sportswear heritage, his clothing and logo were thus fitting choices for the Olympic Opening Ceremony uniforms. Celebrating modernity, glamour, and the ‘heroic, rationalized body,’ Team USA successfully combined sport and fashion to become a symbol of American national identity.


Arnold, R. (2009) The American Look: Fashion, Sportswear, and the Image of Women in 1930s and 1940s New York, New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd.

Breward, C. (2008) ‘Pure Gesture: Reflections on the Histories of Sport and Fashion’, in Breward, C. (ed.) Fashion v Sport, London: V&A Publishing.

A ballet dancer’s view: what Tanaquil Le Clercq’s 1940s personal photographs can tell us about her self-image

Some of the most unexpected discoveries during the course of my research on Russian émigré ballet and the body c.1920-50 have been the personal photographs in dancers’ archives.  Personal photographs, unlike the widely publicised media images, which typically feature the dancer in costume and attempt to restage a ballet’s choreography, are the snap-shots taken by a dancer’s family and friends.  Within these latter images, it has been interesting to consider how far the dancer’s self-image, and possession of the learned fluid mannerisms acquired from ballet training, influenced her body image in unofficial snapshots.

The personal photographs of Tanaquil Le Clercq, an American dancer who became a protégé of the Russian émigré choreographer George Balanchine from 1940, when she won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet (SAB), reveal an experimental approach to body image and identity.  Le Clercq, who had long tapering legs, a feline profile, and a playful, instinctive sense of musicality, embodied Balanchine’s ideal of an American ballerina.

Three distinctive genres emerge in Le Clercq’s 1940s photographs, which are stored at  the Tanaquil Le Clercq Personal Archive at the New York City Ballet Archive in New York: the diligent American ballet student,  the metropolitan ballet dancer,  and the ingénue exploring her identity.

A series of Le Clercq in exuberant poses, reflective of a typical American dancer, were taken around 1945 by her mother Edith Le Clercq when the family were on vacation in Cape Cod. In one photograph, Le Clecq wears a long, full-skirted patterned dress with a white petticoat and executes a high arabesque on toe, with her arms extended wide at a diagonal. The discrepancy between her legs’ balletic stance and her free arms evoked the naturalist vitality and elevation that were common in official representations of American dancers in dance interest magazines. However in one image, the blurry thrust of a raised leg, and the downcast-eyed, parted-lipped expression of intense concentration, which are different from the dancers’ unmannered ease in media photographs, document more realistically the dancer at work. This unofficial image thus countered the critic Edwin Denby’s myth of American dancers as carefree ‘boys and girls in exuberant health who are doing pretty much what the charming animals do, and are as unconscious of their grace as they…’, with a portrayal of an ambitious dancer on a conscious mission of self-improvement.

A 1946-48 image of a pony-tailed Le Clercq in a black leotard was taken on the SAB’s Madison Avenue rooftop by her then boyfriend Job Saunders. Her weight is slightly forward, her knees are bent playfully and her head is tipped away and twisted to the side as she attempts to synchronise her trained body with the urban context of New York City. Here Le Clercq’s syncopated, sleek body posture reflects Balanchine’s own aesthetic in mid-1940s ballets such as The Four Temperaments (1946); however, her ballet-jazz improvisation on the ballet school’s roof also indicates an independent exploration of her physicality, both as a dancer and as a woman. Interestingly, the boundaries between dance-wear and everyday wear had become looser after 1943, when the New York sportswear designer Mildred Orrick introduced a leotard similar to Le Clercq’s, thus encouraging women to imbue a dancer’s sinuous mobility in their everyday body image. In light of ballet’s fashionability, Saunders’ image of Le Clercq on the roof, perhaps unconsciously, positioned her as a hyper-visible City style icon.

Fellow-dancer Patricia McBride’s 1944-5 photograph of a loose-haired Le Clercq, crouching in a black leotard and holding a round mirror that reflects her face, presents a more mysterious view of the dancer. The Polaroid frame, which crops Le Clercq’s body from both ends, provides a cloistered perspective, while the abundant wavy hair flowing down her back suggests a semi-erotic state of abandon and perhaps even evokes John Tenniel’s illustrations of Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871). Significantly, the fashion photographer Richard Avedon adopted the figure of Alice in a February 1947 issue of Junior Bazaar, where a modern version of Carroll’s protagonist undertakes a journey of self-realisation through adopting new fashions. While Avedon’s commercial imagery lacks the intimacy of Le Clercq’s, collectively the images imply that the sense of ludic self-discovery represented by an Alice figure was relevant to women’s fluctuating sense of identity in the 1940s – a decade in which women had to adjust to men’s absence during the war years and their reinvigorated presence in peace-time. In Le Clercq’s case especially the mirror could recall the ballet studio ritual, but it is also a poetic device that alludes to an unseen dimension within the subject.  While McBride’s photograph in itself insufficiently explains the young dancers’ self-image, it implies that some aspects of identity were explored through fantasy in a girlish, coterie atmosphere. Interestingly, this dynamic mirrored that of the late 1940s Junior Bazaar photographer Lillian Bassman and her models, who would share their personal experiences and fantasies rather than engage in the camera seduction of photographic sittings dominated by male photographers. Additionally the sense of engaging with something that mattered to the sitter, evident in Mc Bride’s photograph, also applied to Bassman’s introspective soft focus images which portrayed women engaged in private reveries or rituals.

Although they vary in subject-matter and mood, collectively, Le Clercq’s personal photographs indicated that her sense of identity in the mid-1940s was plural and adolescent as she expressed Balanchine’s vision of the American ballerina alongside other more personal aspects of feminine identity. The parallels with contemporary fashion images in Le Clercq’s photographs position her within the collective of young American women who engaged with forming a public persona, whilst they simultaneously cultivated a personal self-image.


Denby, E. (1949) ‘Against Meaning in Ballet’, in Looking at the Dance, New York: Curtis Books.

Francesca Woodman’s photographs, dress and ambiguous narratives

I first discovered Francesca Woodman’s photographs whilst I was working at the company Phillips de Pury. I was sorting through some catalogues and came across the work, Self Portrait at Thirteen, Boulder, Colorado, 1972. I was struck by her age and the estimated price. Untitled, Rome, 1977-78 sold for $170, 500 on the 4th April 2012. Her self-awareness struck me as being immediately of our time. Both her playfulness with the camera and her seeming insistence to photograph herself held my gaze. As I paused to gather my thoughts, what also collapsed time and made me connect so viscerally with the photograph, was the medium of dress.

Here is an extract from an essay I wrote this year in Dr. Rebecca Arnold’s History of Dress MA. The extract discusses ‘After My Grandmothers Funeral’a photograph that helps to communicate how Woodman’s understanding of fashion offers a narrative possibility to her images hereto unexplored.

“The cinematic qualities of the image were elucidated by the curator Lynne Cooke in the exhibition Ellipsis who celebrates connections between Woodman and the filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni. The term ‘ellipsis’ makes reference to an important formal device used in modernist film in which an element of film narrative which does not need to be shown or stated is removed from screen. Antonioni’s use of ellipsis is distinct in that he extended the use in order to mark moments of uncertainty in films such as L’Eclisse (1962) and L’Aventura (1960). Here, Woodman appears like an Antonioni heroine, her dress signals an awareness of fashion and the filmic qualities of the image exacerbate the fictional qualities of Woodman’s fashionable attire.

The image thus concedes to the cinematic device ellipsis that echoes the use of dress as creating an ambiguous narrative or missing link, caught between a protective covering and a simultaneous statement of a fragile interior state of mind. The etched pencil title, ‘After my grandmothers funeral’ tints the image with a ceremonial, ritualistic event, that is not present in the photograph. The fur coat encases Woodman in a way that is seems both protective and defensive perhaps embodying Woodman’s ambiguity towards Fashion as either an extension of thought or rationally separating dress and thought. Whilst the colour black evokes an interior consciousness, mimicking a solemn state of mourning on the outside, Woodman’s clothing suggests the sensory quality of touch.

Through this image dress becomes a mechanism for Woodman to reconfigure the narrative possibilities of objects. In her photographs concerning her grandmother, Woodman’s characteristic use of clothing as lining, becoming an extension of skin, is replaced by a more complex relationship to the clothing. Clothing takes on an element of agency itself. The objects embody her absent grandmother and rather than relishing in a characteristic blur, Woodman can be seen to archive the objects by integrating them into her own work and associating them with her own living body.

This essay tries to capture how Francesca loved fashion and little, if no critical consideration is given to her clothes. They add something to the images, and in part attracted me to her astounding body of work.”


A French dress and the OPjectscape of 1965-6

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Emmanuelle Khanh dress, c. 1966, Collection of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. Photo Alexis Romano.

Concentric diagonal lines lead the viewer’s eye to a central triangle and button of a cotton dress. Its simple construction is composed of eight panels of fabric inventively joined on the bias to construct a dynamic motif of vertical lines. Two circular pockets with horizontal lines applied to the skirt and a vertical column of buttons that opens the garment clash with this diagonal current, and enliven the play of colour and line. Like the faux pocket at the breast, the dress teases, tricks and amuses. Although its creator, French designer Emmanuelle Khanh (b. 1937), employed whimsical and trompe l’œil details throughout her career, there was an increased interest in geometry and distortion in mid-1960s pattern design.

The dress was part of the Spring/Summer 1966 collection produced for the label I.D., created three years earlier. Its artistic director, styliste Maïmé Arnodin (1916-2003), mediated between Khanh and a network of other professionals—manufacturers, textile producers, retailers, graphic designers, journalists and photographers—to see the garment to completion. A 1966 article in Le Monde discussed stylistes, whose role, which was ‘growing nonstop as fashion industrialises,’ was to counsel their manufacturer clients on future styles and colours to render last year’s fashion obsolete. The article even surmised that stylistes premeditated the trend for Op Art, which, ‘presented with a great splash in magazines before going on sale, was almost outmoded before it was woven.’

Although limited by industrial constraints, Khanh looked outward to a culture saturated by new graphic trends. In 1965 and 1966 Op Art was a constant feature in the everyday visual landscape of France and abroad. The play of lines on her dress recalls the concentric squares in Frank Stella’s Line Up (1962). This painting was reproduced in Michel Ragon’s article in the July 1965 issue of French Vogue entitled Op Art? Sa Place est dans la rue. Stella’s painting was part of the The Responsive Eye exhibition held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1965, which popularised the movement and inspired, as Khanh recently admitted, her 1966 collection. She added that the dresses’ ‘clashing lines…broke the rhythm,’ which ‘made the silhouette vibrate.’ Cyril Barrett similarly wrote of Op painting that what ‘first confronts us is a stable and often rather monotonous repetition of lines, squares or dots. But as we continue to look at the simple structure it begins to dissolve before our eyes. The dots seem to flicker and move; the lines undulate; the surface heaves and billows.’ The moving body would have accentuated these effects. Ragon’s title alluded to the fact that this movement, as other critics argued, belonged out of the museum and ‘in the street.’ Likewise, Barrett described it as ‘an artform which was what every good dress or advertisement should be—eye-catching.’


Barrett, C. (1971) An Introduction to Optical Art, London: Studio Vista.

Khanh, E. (n.d.) unpublished manuscript.

Mont-Servan, N. (1966) ‘Le role des stylistes’, Le Monde, 2 June.