Nostalgia and Womanhood in the Victorian fin-de-siècle

In 1892, the British periodical Young Woman acknowledged that “‘There is no scarcity of women’s journals’” (Mendes). Britain in the nineteenth century saw a significant rise in women’s periodicals, increasing in volume towards the end of the century to address a changing social landscape and growing female readership. As the end of the century loomed near, women had begun to transcend the domestic realm and gender roles were increasingly challenged. Society saw the emergence of the ‘New Woman’—strong and educated, striving towards greater political agency—sensationalized frequently in the press. With visual and verbal representations of women each periodical put forth its own ideas about the female role, disseminating to women of all ages and social statuses their concepts of the ideal woman and home, fashion, arts, literature, and other female-oriented content. The ‘woman question’ of the female’s place in society was on everyone’s mind, male and female alike, as traditionally delineated spheres—he in the public, she in the domestic and private—were challenged.

Clare Mendes writes in her exploration of fin-de-siècle New Womanhood that “1896 became a watershed year in which ideas were being recalibrated, following the Wilde trials and the public burning of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. New magazines for women after this date had an important role to play in the reinvention of womanhood: would she retain her outspokenness or return to submissiveness?” She references a binary that is characteristic of the way late Victorian femininity is often depicted in the contemporary imagination, focusing on two oppositional gender ideologies for women—one of conservative ideals—the domestic and confined female lacking agency—and the other of progressive alternatives—the feminist ideal of the New Woman. This duality reveals itself further in discussions of Victorian dress, where the feminine and conservative has “often been examined in terms of its regulation and control of the female body”(Wahl), and the progressive characterized as an attempt to ape men.

Even in recent decades scholars have argued that through most of the Victorian era in Britain “periodical readers were offered a model of femininity as undifferentiated and uncontested, focused on the private and domestic as distinct from the masculine world of politics, law and ‘work’” (Ballaster). But this statement is in fact an oversimplification—in reality domestic ideology was neither uniform nor static, but rather full of tension and contradiction—a textual and cultural analysis of women’s magazines reveals numerous discrepancies within representations of femininity. Specifically, through a brief case study of an instance of late nineteenth century portraiture and its preoccupation with the past, we can see that the stable visual binary of domestic femininity or an aggressive new womanhood is a further instance of oversimplification that begins to collapse and reveal itself as reductionist. Victorian feminisms and Victorian women were not one neatly packaged thing or another. In reality, the female body at this historical moment acted as a stage on which disparate gender norms and ideas were played out and at times compounded, bringing to light the “conflicting, unstable characteristics of nineteenth century domestic ideology and femininity” (Ledbetter).

Edward Hughes, Georgina, Countess of Dudley, late 19th century, oil on canvas, in Lady’s Realm 1 (1896), 250-257. Photo author’s own.
Edward Hughes, Georgina, Countess of Dudley, late 19th century, oil on canvas, in Lady’s Realm 1 (1896), 250-257. Photo author’s own.

As we often turn towards the past in times of societal and cultural difficulty, nineteenth century Britain was in many ways obsessed with the previous century. In 1894, an exhibition was held at London’s Grafton Gallery devoted entirely to representations of feminine beauty and loveliness. Titled the “Exhibition of Fair Women,” over two hundred historical portraits of ideals of female beauty were put on display alongside miniatures, female accessories, and objets d’beaute, many lent to the exhibition by prominent social ladies of the time. Of the many masters displayed on the gallery walls—Holbein and Van Dyck, Goya, Velazquez—the exhibition’s viewers and the press seemed to agree that it was the English masters of the 18th century, notably Romney, Lawrence, Gainsborough, and Reynolds, whose images held the utmost power in capturing female beauty, and “gave such brilliancy to English portraiture….given canvases breathing the essence of femininity” (Fowler). This exhibition was just one example of this societal obsession with the previous century at the cultural moment, gathering momentum as the century drew to a close. The interest was demonstrated most particularly in the commissions by aristocrats and the newly rich for portraits of their wives, in which evocations of eighteenth-century dress, props and poses were paramount (Maynard). The fascination with revivalist portraiture was extended to a wider readership through the pages of numerous female periodicals.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, 1775-1776, oil on canvas, 237 x 125 cm. The Huntington Library, San Marino. (Photo: The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens)

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, 1775-1776, oil on canvas, 237 x 125 cm. The Huntington Library, San Marino. (Photo: The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens)

Women’s magazines in the fin-de-siècle frequently discussed portraiture and the arts, publishing portraits of society women done by the Reynoldses and Romneys of their day—Ellis Roberts and Edward Hughes. In the very first volume of the women’s periodical Lady’s Realm, the author Mrs. F. Harcourt Williamson visits the studio of Mr. Roberts, recounting the experience in her article, aptly named “A Dream of Fair Women.” She is taken aback by the beauty of the painted women in their sumptuous garments, and her article is heavily adorned with reproductions of some of the Roberts and Hughes portraits she has admired, affording a wide audience of readers the opportunity to view paintings they would likely never experience in person.

Printed across from her descriptions of the studio is Georgina, Countess of Dudley by Edward Hughes (late 19th century). The Countess stands tall and statuesque, leaning against a flat-topped rock reminiscent of a neoclassical column. Set in a pastoral background with strong diagonal lines and painterly foliage, she wears a gathered white gown that floats down to her ankles, with satin bodice and crossed and knotted front. Her sleeves billow around her hitting just beneath her elbow, and she drapes a mantle over the rock to rest against, holding excess fabric loosely by her side. She gazes out to the periphery, hair gathered fashionably up on her head. There are obvious parallels in dress, pose, and setting to eighteenth century portraits like Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1775-1776), which would likely have been seen by Hughes and seen or read about by many readers of women’s magazines in exhibitions. Both women lean, dark sky and trees behind them, as their left hands grasp at delicate fabric folds, and white gowns pool at their feet. Their sleeves are gathered almost identically just beneath the elbow, though those on the Countess of Dudley extend out more at the shoulder—a modern intrusion into the vaguely historicized gown. But the Countess of Dudley’s crossover gown with long flowing skirt is still closer in style to a modernized version of the gown painted by Reynolds, an amalgam of fancy dress and the existing mode, than the structured and severe garments of the late nineteenth century, crafting an image of the female that is softer—more stereotypically feminine and pure—and playing on the societal interest in the previous century and its ideology. While the garments bring with them desirable characteristics of the eighteenth century, they are not pure representations of their predecessors, “as in most revivals of dress, wishful thinking often clouds the original reality, and current tastes modify those of other eras or places” (Baines). The modern inevitably creeps in, but implications are clear, and these images are imbued with hegemonic forms of feminine beauty, attaching them to aspirational women.

The revivalist aesthetic sought to depict women with greater simplicity,a kind of untroubled loveliness that seemed to prove that beauty could be perennially preserved” (Maynard); this feminine representation could be viewed largely as a conservative reaction to female advancement. And yet these were prominent society women with increased power outside of the domestic realm and in the British social sphere. They are depicted largely outside and in fancy dress, not caged within the confines of the home, and such portraits convey the social power of the hostess, displaying their wealth and material grandiosity. As subjects they are not entirely passive, conforming to the rigid confines of years past, and beauty and dress emphasize their celebrity, endowing these women with greater agency and influence rather than simply rendering them objects for male viewing pleasure. The frequent inclusion of these society portraits and their use of revivalist dress in woman’s magazines perpetuates an image of women that is in actuality full of contradiction—modern yet traditional, powerful yet sweet.

Similar competing ideologies can be seen in the photography and illustrations of female periodicals. Their images of women never adhered to one ideological camp or another, containing elements of femininity that were at times limiting, and simultaneously looked towards social advancement. Clothing was depicted as a means of this advancement rather than confinement, and yet maintained their idea of a proper feminine aesthetic. Images of late Victorian femininity were wildly unstable because the entire meaning of femininity at this cultural moment was unstable—to view them as static tropes is a great mischaracterization. These portraits and their use of dress in the context of the women’s magazine captured and crystallized this interstitial moment between letting go of a deeply separated past and forging a clear path forward—the press was merely attempting to navigate its complexities like everyone else.

Nostalgia retains a powerful presence throughout fashion and culture at large, as does the feeling that the golden age exists somewhere behind us—we make attempts to grasp at it with our sartorial reflections of decades and centuries past. But it is interesting to consider how these material reflections can never be pure. When we look towards styles of a previous decade or century, we are looking back on people who were also looking back (Cronberg). It seems we commonly think of this phenomenon in relation to the vintage aesthetic of more recent decades, but in actuality it has been occurring for centuries—perhaps a testament to some communal longing of the human spirit.





Clare Mendes, Representations of the New Woman in the 1890s Woman’s Press

Kimberly Wahl, A Domesticated Exoticism: Fashioning Gender in Nineteenth-Century British Tea Gowns

Rosalind Ballaster, Margaret Beetham, Elizabeth Frazer, and Sandra Hebron, Womens Worlds: Ideology, Femininity, and the Woman’s Magazine

Alexis Easley, Clare Gill, and Beth Rodgers, Women, Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1830s-1900s: the Victorian Period

Kathryn Ledbetter, British Victorian Women’s Periodicals: Beauty Civilization and Poetry

Frank Fowler, Portrait Painting and some Early English Painters

Margaret Maynard, A Dream of Fair Women’: Revival Dress and the Formation of Late Victorian Images of Femininity

Mrs. F. Harcourt Williamson, A Dream of Fair Women

Barbara Burman Baines, Fashion Revivals: From the Elizabethan Age to the Present Day

Life in Colour with Parks and Shabazz

Photography often failed to be recognised as a true art form, something that has resonated with the struggles encountered by many famous photographers nowadays. The medium’s strength was always recognised in its ability to accurately represent reality – nevertheless, even reality has numerous depictions.

Michael Mery talking
Michael Mery at the Schomburg Centre (source: shot by author)

Gordon Parks is nowadays known to be one of the most influential photographers of his period. Having shot both fashion and news, he has an ability to convey beauty and despair in even the simplest of things.  During our trip to New York in February just before Covid-19, our MA class was fortunate enough to have the chance to discuss photography with Michael Mery from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Amongst the treasure troves were coloured prints of one of my favourite photographers, Gordon Parks.

The beauty and the timelessness of his images highlight the incredible fashion that ornate the bodies in town. By opting for Kodachrome, Parks manages to render mesmerising compositions highlighting colours, motifs and textures of dress, bringing them to life before our very eyes. In peering into these individuals’ everyday life, one experiences an almost soothing feeling. Yet, it is this calmness that is ultimately most disturbing.

gordon parks
Gordon Parks, Alabama Series, 1956 (source: Instagram screenshot)

Coloured film enabled him to capture reality more accurately, but this only emphasised the obvious forms of discrimination present in these images. Amongst Parks’s pictures of people going about their everyday life, you catch glimpses of signs: ‘coloured entrance’, ‘colored’, ‘coloured only’. It becomes ironic that the coloured medium through which he captures these images resonates with the display of ‘coloured’ segregation encountered everyday by these same individuals.

Shabazz and Parks
Jamel Shabazz, Fly girls and cousins. Jamaica Queens, ca. 1995. Gordon Parks, Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama, 1956. (sources: Instagram screenshots)

His work in some way can be compared to that of photographer Jamel Shabazz, another favourite of mine. Despite generations separating the two photographers, in some way both their colour series resemble one another; their use of subdued colours, individuals getting caught in the moment, a sense of innocence. As discussed by Parks in his autobiography, photography was ‘a choice of weapon’ – instead of fighting inequality with guns and violence, he ‘shot’ people through his lens just like Shabazz.

Parks and Shabazz
From left to right: Gordon Parks, Ondria Tanner and her grandmother window-shopping, Mobile, Alabama, 1956. Jamel Shabazz, The Corner. Midtown, Manhattan, 1990. Jamel Shabazz, Father and Sons. Downtown, Brooklyn. ca. 1990 (sources: Instagram screenshots)

Earlier in June I tuned into a discussion with Shabazz organised by Nights Global, and one question kept coming up again and again -where is the love in today’s culture? I understand that I will never understand, but what I can recognise is that both Park and Shabazz are depicting just that: the need for love. Displaying how these individuals go about their daily lives, these two men use photography to document beauty and a humanity which appears to be taken away.

Shabazz and Parks
Gordon Parks Store From, Mobile, Alabama, 1956. Jamel Shabazz, Double Dating in the 1990s, Harlem. Gordon Parks, Alabama, 1956. (sources: Instagram screenshots)

There is obviously much more that can be said and discussed in the works of the photographers mentioned above. But all in all, in the current ongoing media culture where people are constantly bombarded with the same images, often embedded with violence and aggression, recognising these images are as crucial as recognising those. They both show the same reality, just differently.

Uncovering Family Threads

Quarantining in your childhood home due to Covid is quite a unique experience. Beginning back in April, my parents and I have been cleaning out closets, cabinets, and drawers all over the house, which has turned into a kind of history lesson on our family. We’ve found old polaroid photos, costume jewelry, silver dollars, and, most exciting for me, clothing that belonged to my grandparents and uncles. I have been lucky enough to uncover some personalized, embroidered bowling shirts my grandfather designed in the 1960s. At first glance, the shirts are certainly retro, almost to the point of gaudy, but from these shirts I’ve learned more about my family history than through old photographs. I sadly never met my grandfather, so to actually hold, and even put on, a shirt my he wore, stains and all, it something quite intimate and special.

Ali's grandfather's shirt
My grandfather’s personalized bowling shirt c. 1963.

My father’s family moved to Minnesota City, Minnesota in 1962, and as can be imagined, there’s not a lot to do in a town with a population of 190. Bowling, I learned, was very important to my uncles and grandfather, as that was about the only thing to do, apart from ice skating. My uncles were all on bowling leagues that competed every week against other local leagues. They wore shirts like the one shown above, so clearly, they bowled in style. Every league was sponsored by a local business who paid for their gear and shirts, and this is where my grandfather comes in. He and my grandmother owned a local tavern called the L-Cove Bar which starting in 1963, sponsored many local leagues.

Ali's family

A family celebration at my family’s tavern, the L-Cove Bar

My grandfather bought the shirts, like the one above, from a large company that sold bowling-gear, called King Louie. The embroidered logo was designed my grandfather and done by one of his regular customers. The logo on the back of the shirt featured classic L-Cove Bar imagery: the signature martini glass, signifying a kind of 1960s elegance, and music notes, connoting their weekly live music performances (mostly by country bands). My grandfather wore this particular shirt often, judging from the light stains on the front and a cigarette burn above the front pocket. A bright yellow shirt that belongs to my uncle shows how bowling shirts evolved later into the late sixties. The L-Cove logo isn’t embroidered into the shirt, but printed. The font is simplified, and the bright yellow reflects the boldness of late sixties, and the quickly approaching 1970s.

Ali's Family
My uncle’s bowling shirt, late 1960s

I can imagine my grandfather wore this white shirt not only for bowling, but also with a sense of pride. According to my father, he wore personalized bowling shirts while tending bar and around town. The shirts were certainly a kind of advertising for my family’s business, but also so much more than that. My grandfather was the child of Lithuanian immigrants who spoke little English and worked grueling, low-paying jobs in the stockyards of Chicago. For him and his wife, to be able to run their own business was attaining their vision of the American dream. He was deeply involved in his community, as he was the chief of the local volunteer fire department. Judging from the pristine state of the shirt and my father’s memory, he didn’t actually fight too many fires, but wore this shirt to the local bingo night every week.

Ali's family
My grandfather’s volunteer fire department uniform, late 1960s

My grandfather was coincidentally about my size, so I’m able to wear these shirt today. I get a lot of comments on them, mostly from people who are looking to buy high-quality vintage shirts. For me, those shirts are priceless, as they are a connection to my family’s past. My father’s side of the family constantly reminisce about “the bar,” making it seem like a mythical place where the family worked and celebrated together. It has become my family’s pride and joy and the legacy of my grandparents, but unfortunately, my family sold the bar before I was born. When I wear these shirts, I am reminded the hard work that generations of my family put into the country. Although I never went to the L-Cove Bar or met my grandfather, I can feel the generations of stories against my skin. It is certainly a privilege to know your family history, especially in America. Having access to the clothing that loved ones wore is even more of a special privilege. These shirts tell the story of my family, and I’ll treasure them forever.

Colour Theory: Missoni Case File

The history of colour has been divided into many different areas of study, from aesthetic and cultural history, to dye and chemical research. I have been contemplating colour more recently, specifically in relation to fashion and design, to understand how wearing or looking at certain colour combinations can affect us emotionally. British artist and critical theorist, David Batchelor wrote that, ‘colour has been the object of extreme prejudice in Western culture’ (Chromophobia, 2000), evident from the nineteenth century onwards in which certain colour schemes held negative class associations. Josef Albers, a pioneer of Moderism, dedicated his practice to colour, and outlined in his 1963 Interaction of Colour handbook some key principles to his colour theory: 

  • Colours are in a continuous state of flux and can only be understood in relation to the colours surrounding them. 
  •  All colours have two key elements of ‘brightness’ and ‘lightness’. 
  •  How people see colour is subjective for everyone. 
  • Exploring and experimenting with colour is more important than the study of colour. 
Molli's colour text
Homage to the Square: Apparitition’, by Josef Albers, 1959, Oil on Masonite,120.6 x 120.6 cm, screenshot from the Guggenheim Collection online,

This is of course, a highly simplified summery of Albers’ theory, but is enough to allow a closer examination into a singular fashion house, Missoni. In 1953, Ottavio and Rosita Missoni established their knitwear workshop in their basement, and by 1966 they had their first fashion in Milan. Ottavio and Rosita were inspired by avant-garde art of the twentieth century, with a focus on Futurism and rhythmic compositions of bold, ‘pure’ colours. 

Molli's colour text
Author’s own painting interpretation of a study by Ottavio Missoni

The Fashion and Textile Museum in London curated an exhibition titled, Missoni, Art, Colour’ in 2016, which explored in depth the interwoven threads between Missoni’s knitwear and modernist art. Ottavio was himself an artist, his interest in experimenting with colour as outlined by Albers was revealed in his own paintings and tapestry studies. His use of geometric forms and ‘pure’ colours resemble artworks from Albers’ series: ‘Study for Homage to the Square’, and ultimately come to fruition in his clothing designs. Missoni’s use of knitted threads allows colour to react in a state of flux to each different coloured thread surrounding it, exploring the effects of colours by contrasting their brightness’ and ‘lightness’.  

Molli's colour text
Author’s own photograph of ‘M 37’, by Wojciech Fangor, 1969, taken at the Guggenheim Museum, February 2020.

In February, I visited the Guggenheim museum in New York and found myself fully immersed in colour and its emotional capabilities while looking around the ‘The Fullness of Colour:1960’s Painting’ exhibition. I was particularly captivated by Wojciech Fangor’s, ‘M 37’ painting from 1969, and how it’s simple green circular form appeared to bleed out into a vivid sky-blue ring, which then faded into the surrounding canvas. The application and contrast of these simple colours and shapes seemed to transcend its form and resonated a feeling of peace and calmness inside of me. On return from New York, I visited my favourite vintage shop in London, and immediately noticed a long sleeved, Missoni knit top. The vertical stripes of the top weave bright green threads into thin lines of white, which are then subdued by a deep purple. Only to be contrasted yet again by a thick stripe of bright pink, which illuminates next to the vivid orange. There was something that the impact of the paintings at the Guggeneheim exhibition had on me, that I felt was reflected in the composition of colours in this Missoni piece. If I could feel certain emotions looking at a painting’s colour and form, then how would others perceive and react to the experimental use of colour in this Missoni top 

Molli's colour text
Author’s own photograph of Missoni top.

I continue to chase the effect of colour and patterns in clothes especially in Missoni pieces, which have provided me with a new theoretical perspective on the already established connection between art and fashion. Each piece now holds a deeper meaning to me, as I come to appreciate the delicate art of Missoni’s knitwear technique, and influence of colour theory, form, and art. Perhaps in these times, now more than ever, we should consider how something so seemingly insignificant, can have such a big impact on our emotions and well-being. Not only for ourselves, but for others who may find a fleeting moment of peace or joy when appreciating colour in clothing. 



  • Batchelor, David, Chromophobia, (Reaktion books, 2000) 
  • Blaszczyk, Regina Lee, ‘The Design World’s Passion for Colour’, Journal of Design History, (Oxford University Press on behalf of Design History Society, Vol. 27, No. 3, 2014), pp. 203-21 
  • Fashion and Textile Museum, ‘Missoni, Art, Colour’, exhibition, 2016 
  • Hoecherl, Marlies, ‘Theoretical Aspects of Colour’, Controlling Colours, (Archaeopress Archaeology, 2016) 

‘There’s A Million Guys Like Me’: Gene Kelly, Dress and Ordinary Masculinity.

When it comes to dance royalty, Gene Kelly reigns supreme. With credits including classical musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain (1952), An American in Paris (1951), and On The Town (1949), Gene Kelly is best remembered for his athletic style of dancing, and stands out in popular memory as the original example of the manly dancer.

But despite this posthumous reputation, during his career Kelly’s masculinity was a constant source of anxiety for both the star – he frequently retold a story in which he denied being a ‘sissy dancer’ at a burger bar in New York – and for the studio he worked for. Although Kelly worked hard to hone a dancing style that would be considered manly and virile this was not enough, and in both his on-screen and off-screen appearances it becomes clear that dress was of paramount importance in creating Kelly’s masculine image.

Rosie's diss talk
Kelly’s simple look for the highly dramatic ballet sequence, performed with Leslie Caron (photo: screenshot from movie)

At first glance, many of Kelly’s costumes seem remarkable only for being, well, unremarkable. Throughout An American Paris, his dress is notably normal: at the beginning of the film, the star appears in cream coloured trousers with a cap and matching sweater, wearing a similarly simple outfit in the number ‘S’Wonderful’. Later, in an extended dance sequence with Leslie Caron, he also sporting plain black slacks and a short-sleeved t-shirt designed to draw attention to his muscular arms. Although simple, these costumes worked hard to assert the star’s manliness by emulating a cultural icon of heteronormative masculinity – the ordinary American man. This chimed with Kelly’s depiction in movie magazines of the period, where studio’s pre-made publicity material had him describe himself as ‘just Joe Average’, adding that ‘I’ve got a wife, a kid, a car and a house. There’s a million guys like me’.  By emulating the normal American man, his plain, simple dress dress works harder than it seems to – refusing to label Kelly a spectacle and resisting the ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ that, according to Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema essay, characterised female performers’ appearances.

Rosie's diss talk
Gene Kelly at the beginning of An American in Paris and in the number ‘S’Wonderful’ (Photos: screenshot from movies)

Another of Kelly’s trademark looks was the suit – an unmistakable signifier of ordinary masculinity. But while his Fred Astaire frequently danced in elegant top hats and tails, Kelly’s suits strived to emulate the ordinary working man’s wardrobe. In Singin’ in the Rain, for example, Kelly performs one of the most well-known musical numbers ‘Good Morning’ in a grey business suit, having removed his jacket, and perhaps the best-remembered image of the film comes when Kelly, in a suit and hat, swings from a lamppost in the rain. Kelly’s suited look was established early in his career, and in the title number of his first film For Me and My Gal (1943), the star was also dressed in a pin-striped suit. By mirroring the look of the ordinary man Kelly’s image continues to insist on its own masculinity by refusing to depict Kelly as a sartorial spectacle. Importantly, however, Kelly’s plain business suits also reveals MGM’s particular interest in associating Kelly with a particular brand of relatable, working-class masculinity. In fact, Photoplay’s May 1943 edition even recounted a story that, after losing his dinner jacket, Kelly had threatened to attend a movie premiere in a business suit.

Rosie's diss talk
Gene Kelly’s pin-striped business suit in For Me and My Gal (Photo: screenshot from movie)

This dual preoccupation with both Gene Kelly’s masculinity and his relatability crystallises in his sailor costumes, which he wore in films including On the Town and Anchors Aweigh (1945). Intentionally resonating with the uniforms worn by men who had fought in the Second World War, his dress in these films not only underlined Kelly’s patriotism but also encouraged contemporary male viewers to recognise themselves in Kelly’s star image.

But at the same time as stressing Kelly’s ordinary masculinity, his sailor outfits in also undercut these implications. In Anchors Aweigh, for example, Kelly performs ‘The Worry Song’ with an animated Jerry the Mouse. Here, Kelly’s blue striped t shirt stretches over his torso, emphasising his pectoral muscles, and his high-waisted white trousers are very tightly fitted. Throughout the dance routine, a long tracking shot is used to ensure that the star’s body is in full view and so, despite insisting on his masculinity, Kelly’s costume here in fact positions him in a typically female cinematic role – that of sexualised spectacle.

Rosie's diss talk
Kelly and Sinatra’s identical sailor costumes emphasise their togetherness (Photo: screenshot from movie)

Of course, Kelly’s sailor suits and their ostensible assertions of masculinity are further complicated by the cultural understanding of the sailor as a signifier of homosexuality. In Anchors Aweigh, his costume not only exhibits Kelly’s body but also resonates with his male co-star (Frank Sinatra)’s costume to imply their togetherness – something which is echoed in their physical closeness during dance routines – and suggest the possibility of a relationship between the two. Although likely unintentional, this example is significant for highlighting the anxieties of gender and sexuality that troubled Kelly’s star image. Here we see how, despite being used to try to obscure such ambiguities, dress in fact becomes a key to understanding them.

Black Power Style in Wattstax

Wattstax was a day-long festival that happened in Los Angeles in 1973. It was known as the “Black Woodstock,” but it could not be more dissimilar to the rural New York music festival of 1969. Wattstax was organized as a celebration of the seven-year anniversary of the 1965 Watts Uprisings. It was a celebration of Black music, fashion, and success. Organized by Stax Records, the festival was organized by Black folks for Black folks, making it one of the least remembered, yet most successful events of the Black Power movement. Soul and blues artists like The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, Albert King, and Rufus Thomas graced the stage and moved the audience to cheer, laugh, and dance. All of the day’s celebrations were captured on film by director Mel Stuart in the 1973 documentary Wattstax.

Isaac Hayes as the center piece of Wattstax poster, 1973, offset lithograph, 41 inches x 27 inches, Edward Mapp collection at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Isaac Hayes as the center piece of Wattstax poster, 1973, offset lithograph, 41 inches x 27 inches, Edward Mapp collection at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (source: screenshot from AMPAS)

The fashions of Wattstax range from elegant and sleek to spectacular and outrageous. Director Stuart was sure to capture not only the performer’s costumes, but also the soul style of the audience and local community. Performers like Isaac Hayes and Rufus Thomas incorporated clothing into their performances by wearing capes and then dramatically throwing them off to reveal their humorous and politically-charged ensembles. Audience members arrived to Wattstax in their best soul style like over-sized newsboy hats, zebra print ensembles, and African prints. The documentary’s biggest achievement perhaps is its ability to show the diversity and creative abilities of Black Americans’ creative styling abilities.



screenshot from movie clip - Audience Members arriving in Wattstax, Dir. Mel Stuart, Columbia Pictures, 1973
Audience Members arriving in Wattstax, Dir. Mel Stuart, Columbia Pictures, 1973 (source: screenshot from movie clip)

During the Black Power Movement of the early sixties and late seventies, Black people across the globe sought to achieve liberation by rejecting White beauty standards and creating a unique black aesthetic. Dr. Tanisha C. Ford explains that “soul” was a “cultural language through which people of African descent could speak about the horrors of slavery and colonialism while also serving as a source of cultural pride and political solidarity” (Liberated Threads, 6). Clothing was an essential part of Black Power, and soul style served as a way to express to the world one’s personal dedication to Black liberation. Wattstax provides a window into how each Black person constructed a liberated identity at the largest gathering of Black people at that point in Los Angeles history.

For all of its celebration of Black liberation, Wattstax not perfect. A clear hierarchy appears throughout the documentary that favors young, urban people over older rural people and most obviously, favors men over women. Few women performed at Wattstax, mainly because Stax Records simply did not represent as many female musicians. The Black women that do appear onstage are all similarly dressed in maxi dresses and afros while the male performers wear outrageous ensembles comprising of chains, neon colors, and white fringe. Indeed, Black feminists and conversation about gender equality was often excluded from Black Power events, as gender was believed to complicate the goal of racial equality. In interviews of the local community, men share their opinions on racism, politics, unemployment and policing, while women are only filmed giving their opinions on hairstyles and love. So while Wattstax was a groundbreaking event, it still represented relatively regressive gender politics.

Kim Weston, Carla Thomas, The Bar-Kays, and Rufus Thomas in Wattstax, Dir. Mel Stuart, Columbia Pictures, 1973.
Kim Weston, Carla Thomas, The Bar-Kays, and Rufus Thomas in Wattstax, Dir. Mel Stuart, Columbia Pictures, 1973 (source: screenshot from clip extract)


Among the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, I’ve watched Wattstax in a different light. The film is not only an intimate glimpse into Black life during the Black Power Movement, but it is clearly relevant to the current protests of police brutality. When the festival was being planned, the venue owners and local White community feared that a gathering of 100,000 Black people would become violent. Wattstax was successful and peaceful because it was handled by an all-Black, unarmed security team. This stipulation was extremely important to the festival organizers because police forces, particularly the LAPD, had a history of racial discrimination and violence. Sadly, American policing has not improved, but has since become more militarized and continues to over-police and brutalize Black communities. Wattstax can be a lesson to us contemporary viewers of how communities can flourish when they are protected, and not violently policed. American policy-makers have tried body cameras and police reform, and Black Americans are still being arrested, imprisoned, and killed at a disproportionate rate. The police as we know it in America needs to be abolished and replaced with something more like what we see in Wattstax: an unarmed, community-based team dedicated to protecting citizens.

Watching Wattstax is a truly uplifting and joyous experience. Its detailed depiction of the audience and local community creates an intimate collective portrait of the Black Los Angeles community during the Black Power Era. In focusing on Black music, the documentary gets to the crux of Black life. Through music, Wattstax shows the beauty of Black church life, Black family, and Black creativity. Although Wattstax was not perfect in its politics, it is an important record of how Black Americans expressed their individual freedom through music and clothing. Wattstax was a small, yet significant step in the journey to towards Black liberation and should be an integral part of American history.





Black Los Angeles: American Dreams and Racial Realities by Darnell Hunt and Ana-Christina Ramon

Fire this Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s By Gerald Horne

Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul by Tanisha C. Ford

The Many Meanings of Watts: Black Power, Wattstax, and the Carceral State by Donna Murch

Fashion’s Virtual Future: Notes from London’s Digital Fashion Week

We are still in the infancy of learning how to mimic and maintain something of the in-person experience online. In the early stages of lockdown, there seemed to be something promising in the ability to access renowned museum collections online, often in minute detail and with 360-degree tours. As our worlds began to narrow to our domestic spaces, how thrilling to be able to move from the Louvre to the Prado with the switch of a tab – how unprecedented (to borrow 2020’s favorite word)! While there is certainly something to be said for increased access and the democratization of art, virtual experiences and events across the board have proven to be lacking. If you cannot move seamlessly around a sculpture allowing its narrative to unfold, or be drawn to a new piece because you caught a glimpse of it in the next room over, or share in the experience with others in the room, there is undeniably a missing human emotional element, crucial to the arts.

This must be all the more true for fashion, whose materialism is essential, and whose location on the body increases the need to take into account this very materiality. With cancellations of couture week in July, and likely carrying over to the fall, the future of fashion presentations and fashion week lies online. Clearly in this transformation much must be lost. How can movement, transparency, intricacy and emotion be captured in the virtual world? What are the implications for such a material and corporeal industry?

How can clothing make itself felt virtually?

In short—it can’t, yet.

This past weekend London served as the first of the four major fashion capitals to take a week of shows and events into the digital realm (Shanghai became the first fashion week to pivot to an entirely virtual event this past March). Though scheduled to fall during London’s menswear slot the event was technically gender-neutral, the first time in its 40-year history that men and women’s collections “showed” side by side. Hosted exclusively on the “LFW Hub”, the event featured fashion films, capsule collections, playlists, poems, panels and live performances. Few designers actually showcased new collections given the economic fallout of the current global crisis, but they were presented with the opportunity and freedom to translate their creativity into the digital sphere in different mediums and formats, resulting in myriad new ways to convey a brand’s identity and values. While the weekend was certainly full of challenges, much can be gleaned about the place of the fashion industry in the current world climate, and fashion’s potential futures.

Entering the Netflix-like homepage of the event, it was not obvious that this was a site centered around fashion. The mix of media—videos, visual art, poetry, music—read like an interactive magazine; few images even involved clothing, focusing instead on the personalities behind brands. Many household names were notably absent (Burberry, Victoria Beckham, A-Cold-Wall), choosing instead to wait and show during women’s fashion week in the fall, perhaps dulling the excitement for many but leaving space for new talent to emerge. There were certainly some standouts among the current pool of young designers, who used the opportunity to make themselves and their ideologies known.

A view of the homepage - Screenshot of
A view of the homepage of LFW (source: Screenshot of website)

A few highlights included the LVMH Prize winning Nicholas Daley and his short film The Abstract Truth, presenting a new look at his most recent fall fashion show and highlighting the music of South London jazz musicians Kwake Bass, Wu-Lu, and Rago Foot. The film was grainy, conveying a sense of nostalgia—for the Black Abstraction Movement of the 1970s, the collection’s main inspiration, and perhaps for the pre-pandemic world. It seemed almost strange to see so many bodies crowded in one space, models moving to the music and lining up not six inches apart. Martine Rose—one of the more established names of the LFW Reset—partnered with London-based retailer LN-CC to release a “Late Night—Conscious Campaign” centered around waste, crafted entirely from deadstock. Charles Jeffrey canceled a virtual dance party in favor of a “talent showcase” highlighting Black creatives and urging viewers to donate to Black Pride UK. This decision echoed the sentiments of many designers who felt odd promoting new collections in the midst of protests and pandemic, several revoking their participation altogether.

Consistent throughout was the use of fashion to advocate for larger causes, many designers focusing on sustainability—arguably the industry’s most pressing issue—but several, like Jeffrey, responding to the Black Lives Matter movement and current global protests for social justice. This ability to be reactive and sensitive to current world issues demonstrates how nimble designers were able to be outside of the traditional confines of a physical presentation where looks, makeup, music, seating are decided well in advance—a particularly positive development for fashion, so often seen as being out of touch.

MC Miss Jason and Charles Jeffrey (screenshot from article)
MC Miss Jason and Charles Jeffrey (source: screenshot from article)

Several additional positives offered promise: The definition of fashion was questioned and broadened—how can fashion be conveyed through music, in a poem, without physical clothing? Sustainability was clearly at the forefront of thought, with many designers considering new ways of working, creating, producing, traveling, shooting. The democratization of fashion was furthered—the same experience was made available to a far broader audience—consumers, buyers, tastemakers alike.

But there are still many hurdles and unknowns to figure out. It is clear that whether you’re an established fashion house or an emerging brand, it will be a challenge to get people to pay attention without rows of photographers, celebrity appearances, posts and reposts across social media—commercial viability is called into question. The digital platform lacked the same excitement, the “sense of urgency or the anticipation that grows while you are sitting and waiting for catwalk theatrics or a hot debut,” be it from the audience or watching a livestream from home. There was a tangible absence of star power without some of the industry’s largest players and brands and their tantalizing new creations.

Ultimately, it is clear that as of now, the digital equivalent was not (yet) a successful replacement for the traditional week, lacking the human aspect of the physical show. Gone was the vibration of music through the crowd, the scramble of backstage beauty, the street style shots taken as the lucky few entered venues. Were artistry and emotion adequately translated online? Not in the traditional visceral sense, hearts stopping as otherworldly designs and beautiful fabrics passed by. But this was merely an experimental step and the beginnings of a road map for a future that is undoubtedly here to stay. As designer Iris Van Herpen stated: “It will take time before you can put your own language into that new tool, but I do feel we’ll be able to transmit that emotional aspect of the garment into the virtual reality.” Time will tell—Milan and Paris are up next in July—but it is clear that those who are hesitant or slow to adapt to the new ways of being will be at a severe disadvantage.












Adorn, Reset, Recycle

Jewellery is as old as humankind. As totems of status and style or as beautiful design objects in their own right, the power of gems, and the relationships they have with the people that wear them, has provided fascination throughout history. More than any other article of dress, jewels are the ultimate ‘slow-fashion’ accessory. They can be worn daily. They can be polished, cut, shaped and reset. They have the power to transcend time.

The ephemeral nature of jewellery has been manipulated by jewellers for centuries. A means of updating a piece to suit the changing fashion trends of the day, many of the world’s most famous jewels have been notoriously carved up. In 1911, Queen Mary was famously regaled in an August edition of the Washington Post for her ‘thrifty’ decision to reset several of her royal diamonds. In 2007, just under a century later, former Vogue Editor Anna Wintour was photographed wearing an amethyst necklace that had originally belonged to the monarch. Worn without the matching earrings (or Tiara!) the necklace was accompanied by a short floral dress and looked every inch the modern jewel.

Queen Mary wearing her Amethyst Parure. The same necklace is seen on Anna Wintour in September 2007
Queen Mary wearing her Amethyst Parure. The same necklace is seen on Anna Wintour in September 2007 (SOURCE:

This fashion for reworking royal jewels has not gone away. Last year, hawk-eyed fashion editors noticed that Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, had updated her engagement ring. Removing the stones (two of which came from pieces previously owned by the Princess of Wales) from their original thick gold band, the setting had been replaced with a delicate and much more contemporary jewelled design.

You don’t have to be royal in order to enjoy reworked gems. In fact, as fashion itself has made a conscious effort to become more sustainable, the market for vintage jewels has grown alongside our love for vintage clothing. Now, many contemporary jewellery designers actively embrace ‘upcycling’ in their work.

Figure 2: A selection of Annina Vogel Jewels, April 2018
Figure 2: A selection of Annina Vogel Jewels, April 2018 (source:

For Annina Vogel, jewellery is all about recycling. Inspired by the way that jewellery is often considered to be inherently symbolic, as was especially true in the Victorian Era, all Vogel’s pieces use antique charms that she sources herself. Producing a range of highly imaginative designs, including a series of repurposed lockets that incorporate vintage scarves from Hermes, Chanel and Dior, all her pieces are one of a kind. Historic and sentimental, yet modern and unique.

SVNR (pronounced ‘Souvenir’) exclusively uses ‘found, re-used and natural’ materials in each handmaid piece. Rather than costly gemstones or pearls, remnants of ceramic tableware, shells and non-precious stones are used in their unusual designs. Using previously discarded materials the brand aims to ‘call to mind forgotten memories’ and present everyday objects in new ways. Being both sustainable and sentimental, SVNR literally constructs contemporary jewellery from the materials of the past.

Figure 3: SVNR Earring
Figure 3: SVNR Earring (source: )

Lastly, for ‘cool-girl’ pearl brand Alighieri, sustainability is central to their ethos. Using 100% recycled bronze and entirely traceable stones, all the pieces are locally produced by a small team of London craftsmen. Coined ‘Modern Heirlooms’ each design is deliberately ‘timeless’ and inspired by classic literary references. In light of Covid-19, the brand’s founder, Rosh Mahtani pledged that 20% of online sales would be donated to the Trussell Trust. Sustainable and socially conscious, these ‘insta-worthy’ pearls are designed to be passed on whilst still making a difference in the world today.

Figure 4: Alighieri Captured Protection Necklace,
Figure 4: Alighieri Captured Protection Necklace, (source: )

So, as we return to normality, perhaps we should consider a new mantra when looking at our overfilled and largely neglected wardrobes? Adorn. Reset. Recycle. Jewellery is the original antidote to fast fashion.










A Short History of the Bikini

As the world experiences the tough times of isolation and social distancing in the current moment, I find myself dreaming of summer holidays. In particular, the beach, the sun and bikinis. The history of the bikini is a surprising one, filled with scandal, politics and issues of gender. Although the origins of the bikini are uncertain, it has been speculated to be as early as 5600 BC. Greek urns and Roman wall art have been found that display images of women in bikini-like garments. The women are depicted as participating in athletic events, such as running, weightlifting and discus throwing while wearing two-pieces.

Ancient Greece bikini
Source: @dbrfnc on Instagram

The acceptance of the bikini however was gradual. Women were finally permitted at the beginning of the twentieth century to enjoy public beaches, although there were strict requirements for their clothing to protect their modesty. Women would wear multiple layers and incorporate weights into their hems to prevent clothes from riding up and displaying their legs. Petticoats were eventually abandoned for more form fitting single-pieced costumes. The Australian performer and swimmer Annette Kellerman was arrested in 1907 for wearing a tight-fitting one-piece. The outrage from this case influenced the acceptance of one-piece swimsuits, as well as the introduction of new synthetic materials such as rayon that allowed for more form-fitting suits to be produced. The 1940s saw an increased liberation of swimwear due to war-rationing. More flesh became widely accepted and women could now bare their stomachs as a result of the lack of materials during the war. ‘Le bikini’ was unveiled in 1946 by Louis Réard, who named the garment after nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll by the U.S military. His designs were deemed as increasingly scandalous, made of just 30 inches of fabric. Réard hoped that the garment would become as ‘explosive’ as the test itself as he believed that the effects of a woman wearing a bikini could be likened to the devastating effects of a bomb. Réard was inspired to create the garment after noticing women at St Tropez beaches rolling up the edges of their heavy fabric swimsuits to get better tan lines.

Picture of 1950s bikini
Source: @canalhistory on Instagram

However, Réard struggled to find a model willing to wear his minimalistic garment. Micheline Bernardini finally agreed to do the job and displayed the bikini for the first time at the Piscine Molitor, a popular public pool in Paris. The bikini was described as “so small it could fit into a matchbox”. Although the designer received nearly 50,000 thank you notes from various women for his design, the bikini did not receive uniform acceptance. The garment was banned from the first Miss World Contest in London in 1951 as well as prohibited in Portugal, Italy, Spain and Belgium. General acceptance for the bikini did not come about until the 1960s, when societal upheavals around the world began to encourage more liberal views of fashion. The bikini saw a huge comeback at this time thanks to the world of Hollywood. Powerful celebrities proved essential for the popularization of the bikini; Brigitte Bardot gained international fame for wearing a bikini while on a Cannes beach with Kirk Douglas. Similarly, Ursula Andress’ role as Honey Rider in the James Bond film Dr No, became one of the best-known scenes in cinema. In 1960, Brian Hyland released a song titled ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’ that was inspired by the craze of bikini-buying at this time.

screenshot of James Bond Bikini Gal
Source: @a_fox_in_gloves_vintage on Instagram

The fascination with the two-piece will never stop and its design continues to be redeveloped, such as the higher cut G-strings from Brazil. The bikini’s history demonstrates the power of the garment in challenging the status-quo; once deemed as an item of scandal, bikinis are now regularly displayed on Paris runways. The garment has served many important functions throughout the past decades, such as a morale-booster during wartime America or as a triumph for early feminism. The bikini and its history have a deeper significance than from the outset.


Elle Magazine, ‘The History of the Bikini’,

History, ‘Bikini introduced’,

The Sunday Post, ‘The first bikini could fir in a matchbox- a history of the world’s skimpiest swimming costume’,

Time Magazine, ‘The History of the Bikini’,,29307,1908353_1905442,00.html

Hey Ma! What do you think?: A Fashionable Look at Goodfellas

In Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), there’s a scene when Henry Hill’s mother (Elaine Kagan) opens the door to greet her son (Christopher Serrone). Tilting down to match the mother’s point of view, Henry is shown with open arms and a wide smile, wearing a double-breasted beige suit and shiny shoes.

Screenshot of Marti nScorcese
Screen capture of teenage Henry (Left), and adult Henry (Right). (Source: Goodfellas, directed by Martin Scorsese, 1990. From

As Anna Pendergast notes, the suit is “too big, and too beige, but Hill wears it with pride, the equivalent of a young sportsman being given his first jersey.” Henry asks her what she thinks, encourages her to look at his shoes, and says “Aren’t they great?” When the camera moves back to his mother, she proclaims, “You look like a gangster!” The clothing marks Henry’s transition from a part-time errand boy to a full-time mobster. Later in the film, an adult Henry (Ray Liotta) eventually has a closet full of suits and shoes that grows from years of crime. Whether it is marking a character’s identity or crimes, these two scenes underline the way clothing plays a central role in Goodfellas.

Screenshot imani's scorcese article
Screen capture of Billy Bats pointing at Tommy noting his suit (Left), and Tommy telling Billy Bats to “Watch his suit!” (Right). (Source: Goodfellas, directed by Martin Scorsese, 1990. From

Clothing also marks a point of transition for mob associate Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) at a welcome home party for recently freed mobster Billy Bats (Frank Vincent). When Bats first sees Tommy, he notes that he is “all dressed up.” When he hugs him, Tommy repeatedly tells him to, “Watch the suit!” Bats jokes that the last time he saw him, he was called “Shoeshine Tommy” and boasts that he used to make shoes shine “like mirrors.” Eventually, Tommy’s fuse goes off when Bats tells him to get his “fucking shine box.” Similar to Henry, Bats recognizes Tommy’s new identity through the suit and shiny shoes that he wears (instead of cleans).

Screenshot for Imani article
Screen capture of Karen’s coat (Left), and Karen pulling food out of her coat (Right). (Source: Goodfellas, directed by Martin Scorsese, 1990. From

Aside from marking transitional moments of mafia life, clothing also marks the crimes committed in the film. When Henry’s wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco), visits Henry while he is in prison, she sneaks in food (including two loaves of bread) and drugs, in a long powder blue down coat. Overtly visible against the muted browns and grays that fill the prison meeting area, Karen’s coat allows her to conceal and continue her husband’s crimes. But its ordinary style also signifies her status as a civilian visiting her husband.

Screen capture of Imani's good fellas
Screen capture of Jimmy Conway seeing the mink coat (Left), and Jimmy Conway taking off the mink coat (Right). (Source: Goodfellas, directed by Martin Scorsese, 1990. From

This coat differs from a coat worn by a fellow mafia wife later on in the film. With cops surveilling Henry’s crew after a multimillion-dollar heist, Henry’s associate Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) warns the crew not to spend their shares of the heist conspicuously. When a crew member’s wife arrives in a brand-new white mink coat at a Christmas party shortly after the heist, Conway is enraged. Conway demands that she takes it off and remove it from the premises. The coat is unapologetic in its display of crime compared to Karen’s, but both coats simultaneously mark the conspicuousness and inconspicuousness of crimes that take place in the film.

Screenshot for article on good fellas
Screen capture of Karen, Lois (in her lucky hat), and Henry getting ready for one of her trips to transport drugs. (Source: Goodfellas, directed by Martin Scorsese, 1990. From

Another important clothing moment comes before Henry drop-off’s his babysitter and part-time drug mule Lois (Welker White). Before leaving Lois insists, she cannot fly unless she has her lucky hat, which was shown earlier in the film. In what turns out to be a setup, the feds bust Henry and Lois just before they pull out of the driveway. The attempt to retrieve the hat marks the end of Henry’s insular life as a mobster. This takes on greater significance because the wide sloping brim construction of a bucket hat was designed to protect fishermen and soldiers from the elements of the natural world. Ultimately, the hat that Lois takes comfort in, and that is designed to protect from the natural elements, exposes Henry to civilian life. Whether it is marking entries into mob life or crimes committed by characters in the film, clothing underscores the identity and actions of characters in Goodfellas.