The representation of fashion in ‘A Beatnik Community in St Agnes’ (1969)

During the wintery months of 1969, something unusual happened in the Cornish seaside village of St. Agnes. That is, a group of eccentric, unemployed, and, crucially, strangely dressed ‘beatniks’ arrived and began living in the off-season holiday cottages. This occurrence was notable enough to warrant coverage by local television station Westward Television. In this twelve-minute piece of black and white archival footage, Del Cooper interviews both the ‘suspicious’ local residents and the ‘unconventional’ beatniks, capturing a unique moment of fashion microhistory.

Before delving into analysis, it is important to first set this film in a temporal and geographic context. Alternative style was not necessarily new: indeed, by 1969, a variety of subcultural styles and countercultural thought existed in the UK. Since the mid-1950s, Jazz Fiends, Beatniks and West End Boys, stylistically spearheaded by West Indian immigrants, challenged the constrictive post-war aesthetic of adulthood. In the 1960s, Mods and Skinheads similarly used their dress to be socially disruptive. And while Beatniks are not as readily associated with 1960s subculture as Mods, in June 1965, beat poet Allen Ginsberg nevertheless drew a crowd of 7,000 to his four-hour-long poetry reading.Yet, while counterculture and alternative style was a real possibility in this era, visible street style was often limited to London and other cultural hubs. So, when a group of fashionably long-haired Beatniks arrived in a village at the extremity of southwestern England, they signified something new, and disrupted the social ‘norm’.

Analysing this film through the lens of dress and fashion, therefore, is extremely valuable. It is the Beatniks’ dress that is the main disturbance to St. Agnes. Their unusual and sometimes flamboyant style is a stark juxtaposition against the conservative villagers and the local television reporter. This non-fiction film is illustrative of an important representation of fashion on a micro-level, separate to the world of high fashion and London.

If, as fashion scholar Carlo Marco Belfanti argues, fashion is defined by ‘an increasing passion for change and an insatiable search for novelty’, there is nothing more novel than the juxtaposition of a trendy subcultural dress with an underpopulated tourist destination in winter. Accordingly, the film opens with a static shot of Del Cooper standing against a backdrop of usual activity in St. Agnes. He seems to embody the orthodox, respectable and masculine. His grey hair is cut short and only slightly windswept, and he is dressed conservatively in a monochrome polo-neck jumper and clean-cut wool jacket. Behind him, a woman in a headscarf exits Webb’s Store, and a Jacob’s van pulls up across the road to unload a delivery of cream crackers. This scene of total normalcy, however, is soon unsettled by subversive dress. As the camera pans right, the viewer’s eye is drawn to a group of women and men making their way through the village. They are wearing loose-fitting, layered garments, accessorised with patterned scarves and a random assortment of hats; all of them with genderbending long hair. At this moment, Cooper, addressing the camera, answers the unspoken question: ‘Well, of course, it all depends on what you mean by Beatniks. If you mean young people with long hair and rather unconventional clothes, then the Beatniks are here, in St. Agnes, right now.’ A group who have fashioned themselves so conspicuously, their desire for novelty and change is palpable.

It is important to note Del Cooper’s definition of ‘Beatnik’. There are only two elements of this definition: their novel clothing and their long hair. While their actual behaviour is mentioned in the film – sharing money and belongings, strict vegetarianism, and inclination to burn joss-sticks in the local pubs – it is their dress that makes them Beatniks, including their decision to grow their hair long, a body modification that clearly communicates to other human beings that they are unconventional.

Figure 1: Del Cooper addresses the camera as the Beatniks walk into shot
Figure 2: Overcoats, scarves, dark colours and an air of casualness defines these young people

As the camera follows the Beatniks through the village, a man and a woman lead the group, five or six paces ahead. The man wears dark, flared jeans, pointed heeled boots, and a sparsely buttoned-up patterned shirt over a ruffled scarf. A cropped fur coat shrouds this outfit, that he wears undone with his hands resting casually in the pockets. His hair is slightly longer than shoulder length, accessorised by an askew cowboy-style hat. The woman is casually dressed in all black: a loose-fitting dress that reaches her ankles and leather boots. Over this, she wears an oversized, lightweight jacket and a carelessly knotted scarf around her neck. Her long hair flows behind her as she walks.

Figure 3: The flamboyantly dressed leaders

Following behind them are six more long-haired members of the group. Another woman in all black pushes a pram while four men walk alongside her, all in flared trousers and casual shoes. Their winter coats are a trench coat with the belt hanging loose at the back, a hooded duffle, and two double-breasted peacoats, respectively. One man wears a beret, while another wears a Russian Cossack-style fur hat, and they have on a hodgepodge of scarves. Another woman brings up the rear, dressed in a more masculine style, with loose-fitting trousers, a shirt, and a chunky waistcoat. She does not wear her coat but drags it along in her left hand, with a lit cigarette in her right.

What about these people’s dress draws them together? They are undoubtedly a collective, with loose and layered flares, long hair, and patterned scarves. Crucially, these clothes must be thrown on their bodies carelessly, unbuttoned, with pockets to rest the hands. Casualness defines this style tribe. Yet their clothes incorporate a range of cuts, styles, and materials, from paisley cotton scarves to striped woollen scarves, from fur coats to duffel coats – a nod to the growing interest in second-hand clothing in the late 1960s. This exemplifies the paradox at the heart of fashion. As Sheila Cliffe has put it, ‘humans have a need to be both a member of a group, which provides security and also distinguish themselves from the group and assert their individuality’. This is highlighted through the community’s differences in dress and fashioning themselves – they accessorise with individual styles of hat, scarf, and sometimes coat.

This casual, loose, and layered style would not be nearly as striking if it were not juxtaposed with the relatively plain and certainly traditional style exhibited by the long-term residents of St. Agnes. Yet, as the film begins to interview the locals, it is clear that the exhibition of dress is of far less importance to the filmmaker. While the camera angles ensured to include plenty of full-body shots of the unusual Beatnik outfits, the shots of the interviewees are only static close-ups. And to a degree, this is understandable: if fashion is novel, in constant change, and both individual and group-based, the St. Agnes citizens are not particularly fashionable.

Figure 4: A fur-hatted local

Six different locals are interviewed, and either express distaste or indifference to the unorthodox new arrivals. In a few minutes, viewers meet a range of characters: a woman, without make-up, her white hair tucked into a dark fur pillbox hat, and a paisley scarf knotted around her neck; a middle-aged man in a wool coat and trilby hat; a young woman, bare-faced with a messy bob haircut; a woman with dark hair tied up in a loose bun, both make-up and accessory free; an old lady in a fur bonnet; a local councillor with neat curls and cats-eye spectacles; and a man in a stiff-collared coat, white shirt and tie. Dress, at its most fundamental, can signify ambivalences inherent in humans. Here, the functional and stylish – but not particularly trendy – fur hats help to signify a woman’s age. Likewise, the local councillor’s well-ordered spectacles and hair signify her – relatively – public-facing occupation. The man in a coat, shirt and tie suggests professionality. Most fundamentally, the men have short hair while the women have long. Therefore, while not everyone self-fashions to be novel, trendy, or individual, the interviews with the Cornish people signify that on some level, everyone self-fashions to reveal a subconscious element of themselves.

Figure 5: Traditionally masculine
Figure 6: A practical fur bonnet for winter
Figure 7: A stern pair of cats-eye spectacles

As the film moves to interview the Beatniks, however, deeper elements of the inner self are visually expressed. As Daniel Miller argues, dress can often be used ‘as an appropriate exploration of who one really is’.[1] The television reporter, Cooper, seems quite aware of this innate connection. While interviewing Toni, a single mother who wears a string of sparse beads wrapped around her neck twice, reminiscent of hippie love-beads, and a black button-down blouse with delicate embroidery and slightly puffed sleeves, he asks, ‘The people of St. Agnes are very suspicious of you because you’re very unconventional in your dress. Are you also unconventional in your morals?’.

Figure 8: Toni wears artistic beads and slightly puffed sleeves

Additionally, the non-fiction news segment shows snippets of the travelling artists undertaking their crafts and passions. We see people engraving slates, painting, forging jewellery, and playing music. And, in line with Miller’s theory, each person’s dress seems to reflect their own inner talent. The jewellery makers wear thick metal rings on nearly every finger, and the performer dresses the most flamboyantly, in a beret, with long hair and white-rimmed sunglasses – impractically worn indoors. Not only do these accessories help these artists with their self-expression, but they also embody a further definition of fashion. That is, prioritising form over function. It is certainly not practical to wear so many rings, nor are sunglasses fulfilling a practical function when worn indoors. These Beatniks are using dress and accessories purely to portray themselves how they desire.

Figure 9: Layered handmade silver rings adorn this jewellery maker’s hands
Figure 10: Sunglasses indoors

And as the short film comes to a close, an atmospheric shot pans out of shabbily, artistically dressed Beatniks, listening to a poem being read aloud against the crashing waves of Cornwall. Miller’s concluding argument seems apt: a study of clothing should evoke feelings, both tactile and emotional. Perhaps, then, in the bitter winter air, their layered outfits, hats and scarves are keeping them warm in the wintery air. Or perhaps a breeze blows right through the loose-fitting dresses. Perhaps their chunky, hand-knitted woollen jumpers are itchy. Perhaps they enjoy feeling the sea breeze in their long hair.

The film ends, panning in on the waves after Del Cooper makes his closing statement:

What bothers the 4,000 odd residents of this charming, attractive and rather conventional seaside village is that the community with unconventional clothes and rather unorthodox ways will, as they put it, give the village a bad name and drive away the holiday visitors.  They want them to go. But whether you call them free-thinking artists, Beatniks, or the vanguard of a new movement to make England great again, they’re here to stay. And St. Agnes will never ever be quite the same again.

Here, the importance of fashion and dress is notable: this strangely dressed yet fashionable community has altered the microhistory of St. Agnes.

Figures 11 and 12: The closing scene of the film, the Beatniks set against the backdrop of the cold, wintery ocean

By Kathryn Reed

Bibliography

A Beatnik Community in St Agnes. Presented by Del Cooper. BFI (South West Film & Television Archive), 1969. https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-a-beatnik-community-in-st-agnes-1969-online

Arnold, Rebecca, Fashion: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2009)

Belfanti, Carlo Marco, ‘Was Fashion a European Invention?’ in Journal of Global History 3 (2008)

Cliffe, Sheila, ‘Think Fashion or Tradition?’, The Social Life of Kimono: Japanese Fashion Past and Present. (London, 2018)

Davis, Fred, Fashion, Culture and Identity (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995)

Donnelly, Mark, ‘Wholly Communion: Truths, Histories, and the Albert Hall Poetry Reading’, Journal of Cinema and Media 52 1 (2011), pp. 128-140

Eicher, Joanne B., and Roach-Higgins, Mary Ellen, ‘Definition and Classification of Dress,’ in Ruth Barnes and Joanne B. Eicher, Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning in Cultural Contexts (Oxford, 1993)

Miller, Daniel, ‘Why Clothing Is Not Superficial,’ in Stuff (Cambridge: Polity, 2010)

Tulloch, Carol, ‘Rebel Without a Pause: Black Street Style & Black Designers’ in Juliet Ash and Elizabeth Wilson (eds.) Chic Thrills:  A Fashion Reader (Berkeley, 1993)

Welters, Linda, ‘The Beat Generation Subcultural Style’, in Linda Welters and Patricia A. Cunningham (eds.) Twentieth Century American Fashion (London, 2005)

5 Minutes with… Genevieve Davis

As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Genevieve discusses Austrian fashion designer Maria Likarz, the modern woman as machine and her love of jewellery with a story.

What is your dissertation about? 

I am writing about Maria Likarz, an incredible Austrian fashion designer who worked at the Wiener Werkstätte, a cooperative design workshop in Vienna, during its tenure from 1903-1932. This period saw the rise of many famous fashion names, including Coco Chanel, Paul Poiret, and Madeleine Vionnet, but no one has ever heard of Maria Likarz! Dress history during this period tends to focus on France, so delving into Austrian fashion has been really fun. The diversity of Likarz’s talents was profound; she created fashion designs, jewellery, textiles, ceramics, lace, and even a few collections of wallpaper. I could spend all day looking at her designs in the archive of Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts.

Maria Likarz, Faschings- oder Theaterkostüm, 1925,
Wiener Werkstätte Archive, Museum of Applied Art, Vienna.
Maria Likarz, Romulus, 1928, Wiener Werkstätte Archive,
Museum of Applied Art, Vienna.
Maria Likarz, Romulus, 1928, Wiener Werkstätte Archive,
Museum of Applied Art, Vienna.

What is your favourite thing that you’ve written/worked on/researched this year? 

I would say my Virtual Exhibition, and my dissertation is running a really close second. I designed my exhibition around the connection between women and machinery in the early twentieth century. Some of my favourite exhibits included Fernand Léger’s 1924 silent film, Ballet mécanique, a recreation of an automobile painted by Sonia Delaunay, a Kodak Ensemble from 1929, and Look 17 from Prada’s Spring 2012 ready-to-wear collection. Honestly, I loved every exhibit. That exhibition is one of the coolest projects I have ever done!

Original Unic – model L2 painted in a recreation of the style of Sonia Delaunay
Automobile c. 1920, painted later
Museo Automovilístico y de la Moda
Málaga, Spain

Favourite dress history image? 

Narrowing down one choice was a battle, but this Norman Parkinson photograph for Vogue in 1950 is one of my favourite fashion photographs of all time. The subject, Mary Drage, was an English ballerina for Sadler’s Wells Ballet. She stands in front of John Singer Sargent’s 1899 painting The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tennant. I love this image because Drage’s grace and delicate elegance suggest she stepped right out of the painting. After endless months of leggings and sweatshirts, the sumptuous tactility of each gown makes me long for the time when we can all finally dress up again.

Norman Parkinson, 1950, Vogue.

What are you wearing today? 

With our dissertation deadline fast approaching, it is a library day for me. So, I am wearing a pair of teal, white, and navy flowy pants from Calypso, a white V-neck t-shirt, and my favourite gunmetal grey Chanel flats. I also have my softest white knit cardigan on hand because I get cold so easily! And can’t forget those blue light glasses.

How would you describe your style? 

A tough one! I went through several different phases during my high school and university years. When I asked a friend, she described my current style as ‘cosmopolitan chic.’ I like to think of it as classic and elegant. I prefer to shop vintage, I wear a lot of black, and I love bold or patterned jackets. Give me an LBD and some black, heeled booties and I am happy. That being said, I could never function without jeans and trainers. I also adore jewellery. Some of my favourite pieces include a gold ring given by my dad to my mom, which she then passed down to me; my small ruby and gold hoops; and a set of gold bangles (another family heirloom!). I love any piece of clothing or jewellery with a story behind it.

What are you hoping to do next? 

After finishing my MA, I am hoping to return to an auction house, gallery, or fashion house. I would also love to work at a museum in the dress department. I have worked in the luxury industry in the past and can’t wait to jump back in!

Do you have an early fashion memory to share?

When I was three or four, I was the flower girl in my aunt’s wedding. There is an amazing photo of me wearing this gorgeous lilac dress with flowers around the neckline. I was completely obsessed with the dress until my parents gave me a piece of wedding cake, and the photo shows me, in my pretty dress, stuffing cake into my mouth with my hands. Luckily, the dress remained pristine!

5 Minutes With… Ruby Redstone

As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Ruby discusses tartan, Elsa Schiaparelli’s Lobster Dress and 1930s personal style.

 

What is your dissertation about?

My dissertation is about how the concept of personal style developed in 1930s America. The decade was a spectacular time for American womenswear, as the fashion industry developed rapidly and many (but certainly not all) women began to enjoy much more freedom of dress. I’ve found some great books about personal style from the period, all by women writers, and I’m studying those in tandem with wardrobes and looks from exceptionally stylish and highly visible American women like Mae West, Wallis Simpson, and Barbara Hutton.

What is your favourite thing that you’ve written/worked on/researched this year?

I had a great time working on my Virtual Exhibition, which was a show about the use of tartan in Scottish fashion design. I love Scottish design, and I had been wanting to do something to pay homage to that love for a long time. Also, I’m quite a visual person, so I really enjoyed being able to draw maps of my galleries and select paint colours and all that – admittedly, I got a bit carried away and even made designs for what my display mannequins would look like. They are tartan, of course.

What is something you’ve read this year that you would recommend to anyone?

Anne Hollander’s Seeing Through Clothes has become a bible to me. I now recommend it to anyone who is even remotely interested in dress history! Hollander’s chapter on fabric has fundamentally changed and deepened my relationship with clothing. I also have to echo everyone else and say Daniel Miller’s Stuff. It’s no surprise that all of us in Documenting Fashion are drawn to it. It’s such a well-researched study of why clothing is inherently important to humanity – something which I think we all already believed innately, but it’s comforting to see it supported by someone else’s research.

Has learning about dress history had any effect on your personal style?

Oh my, yes. I already joke that I treat my closet as if I’m building the world’s smallest fashion museum, and now that’s intensified tenfold. I fall in love with every single garment we look at, and I’m never content to just say ‘Oh, that looks great on her’ – I always want one for myself. My eBay searches are a bit out of control these days.

Favourite dress history image?

I could never pick just one! Lately, however, I can’t seem to stop thinking about Gordon Parks’ 1956 editorial photo ‘Evening Wraps at Dawn’. It’s such a textured, tactile image. You can almost feel the nighttime fog beginning to clear and smell the wet pavement and car grease that surround this couple. I love the contrast of her glamorous evening look with the gritty early morning light, and I love that she clearly hasn’t been a well-behaved woman in the 1950s sense – she’s been out on the town with a gentleman until dawn! Also, as a New Yorker, I love that I can gauge almost exactly where Parks would have shot this image. It’s amazing how little the city has changed.

Gordon Parks, Evening Wraps at Dawn, 1956, The Gordon Parks Foundation.

What are you wearing today?

I’m wearing a vintage set from the seventies; it’s a pair of wide-leg pants and a ruffled top in red, yellow, and green Madras plaid. I’m not wearing shoes right now, but when I go outside I’ll probably wear a pair of purple fur and red velvet Prada sandals with big gold buckles. I love them, but they’re highly impractical. There are only a few weeks of the year that it’s the right temperature to wear them, so I have to squeeze in as many outfits with them as I can before it gets too warm! 

Where do you get your clothes from?

I’m a big vintage collector, and most of my wardrobe is vintage from eBay, Etsy, and lots of wonderful vintage shops that I’ve hunted down across the years. I supplement that with some secondhand designer pieces from Vestiaire Collective and The RealReal – I try to buy almost everything vintage or secondhand. I also love to support local designers in New York and London, the two places where I split my time right now!

Which outfit from dress history do you wish you could wear?

My answer to this will change every single day, if not every hour of the day, but right now I’d have to say Elsa Schiaparelli’s Lobster Dress that she made in collaboration with Salvador Dalí. I mean, can you imagine anything better for summer?!

Elsa Schiaparelli, Dinner Dress, 1937, printed silk organza and synthetic horsehair, Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1969-232-52. Image courtesy of PMA.

How would you describe your style?

Usually I say Victorian-meets-1960s in a candy store colour palette. Recently, as I get deeper into dissertation research, there have been a lot more thirties references mixed in with that too – I think at this point it’s really just a little bit of everything from every era. I’m a magpie.

Do you have an early fashion memory to share?

My earliest memory is actually a fashion memory! I remember my parents taking me aside to tell me that I was going to have a little sister when I was just a toddler, and I wasn’t really paying attention because I was fixated on pulling out a bright blue turtleneck from my wardrobe. I guess I’ve always been a bit too obsessed with clothing.

 

Anonymity and self-fashioning: Sunil Gupta’s photography

On 17 May, galleries reopened in the UK. I took the opportunity to visit From Here to Eternity: Sunil Gupta. A Retrospective at The Photographers’ Gallery for the exhibition’s limited reopening from 17 May – 31 May. A retrospective illumination of UK-based photographer Sunil Gupta’s (b. 1953, New Delhi, India) body of work so far, from 1976 to the present day, the showcase focusses on themes of race, identity, transition and family. Telling the story of what it is to be a gay Indian man, Gupta’s work is both personal and political, ordinary and melodramatic, and, crucially, challenges Eurocentric visualisations of bodies and desire.

Sunil Gupta, from the series ‘Exiles’, 1986-1987, accessed via https://www.sunilgupta.net/exiles.html

I was particularly struck by the way that pose and self-styling affect the atmosphere of the photographs. In an interview in 2019, Gupta said, ‘[in] India … one of the major stumbling blocks to stepping into [a gay] identity was not having a place. Every time I met somebody the primary question was “Do you have place?”’. This notion was especially prevalent in three of Gupta’s photographic series on display at the Photographer’s Gallery: Towards an Indian Gay Image (1983), Exiles (1986-1987) and Mr Malhotra’s Party (2006-ongoing). The lack of place emphasises the importance of self-fashioning and the subjects’ poses and styling highlight senses of both displacement and belonging.

Sunil Gupta, from the series ‘Towards an Indian Gay Image’, 1982, accessed via https://www.halesgallery.com/artists/91-sunil-gupta/works/

In 1983, Gupta created a black and white series, Towards an Indian Gay Image, that photographed Indian men who identified as gay. They agreed to be photographed but wanted to remain anonymous, which resulted in subjects posing with their back to the camera without their heads in the shot. Gupta explains:

It was the first time I had returned to India as an adult and I found gay men living in plain sight but completely hidden from mainstream society. The last thing they wanted me to do was to make photographs of them and publish them somewhere. It created a big dilemma for me as I was still in college and hoping to document social justice using photo-journalism and my subjects were invisible.

In these photographs, Gupta highlights the vulnerability of the gay community in India and the obstacles that arise from the desire to be recognised but the need to be hidden. He encourages us to consider how someone may dress and pose when they want to be both seen and unseen.

Sunil Gupta, from the series ‘Exiles’, 1986-1987, accessed via https://www.sunilgupta.net/exiles.html

This duality is continued in colour in the later series Exiles (1986-1987), where Gupta returned again to Delhi to illuminate the lives of gay men in India before the decriminalisation of homosexuality. In 2020, Gupta told The Face, ‘I became aware through art school that this whole thing called art history is our context and my story is not in it.’ Exiles begins to tell this story, where clothing and pose are crucial in expressing Gupta’s subjects’ identity.

Sunil Gupta, from the series ‘Mr Malhotra’s Party’, 2006-ongoing, accessed via https://www.sunilgupta.net/mr-malhotras-party.html

For a much later series, Mr Malhotra’s Party (2006-ongoing), Gupta photographs queer-identifying people in India, but this time they are keener to identify themselves. They pose confidently and look straight into the camera. The way they dress, too, is bold, cool, and assertive.

Sunil Gupta, from the series ‘Mr Malhotra’s Party’, 2006-ongoing, accessed via https://www.sunilgupta.net/mr-malhotras-party.html

Across these images, a transition is clear: from invisibility to visibility. By putting physical photographs next to each other in time, the exhibition emphasised the role of self-styling and posing in displaying identities, and in telling crucial stories that are at once personal and political. Through these photographs, Sunil Gupta created visibility for those who were hidden and began to answer the question: ‘what does it mean to be an Indian queer man?’ As the photographer himself has said, ‘It’s our everyday stories that are important.’

By Kathryn Reed

 

Sources used

Artist’s own website, <https://www.sunilgupta.net/> [Accessed 19 May 2021]

From Here to Eternity – an original film with photographer Sunil Gupta, dir. Louise Stevens, 2020, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-N2AtpQEtzs> [Accessed 19 May 2021]

The Photographer’s Gallery exhibition press release, ‘From Here to Eternity: Sunil Gupta A Retrospective, 9 Oct 2020 – 24 January 2021’, (4 August, 2020) <https://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibition/here-eternity-sunil-gupta-retrospective> [Accessed 19 May 2021]

Cochrane, Laura. ‘Sunil Gupta: photographing India’s queer scene over 50 years’, The Face (8 October 2020) <https://theface.com/culture/sunil-gupta-art-the-photographers-gallery-from-here-to-eternity-exhibition> [Accessed 19 May 2021]

Dunster, Flora. ‘Do You Have Place? A Conversation with Sunil Gupta’, Imagining Queer Europe Then and Now 35 No. 1 (20 January 2021)

DreckMag, ‘Interview with Sunil Gupta’, DreckMag (1 January 2017), <https://dreck-mag.com/2017/01/01/sunil-gupta/> [Accessed 19 May 2021]

 

 

 

 

James Barnor: Britain in the 1960s

After being shut for months due to lockdown, galleries in the UK have finally reopened their doors to visitors. Amongst a plethora of ‘must-see’ shows, the Serpentine Gallery’s highly anticipated James Barnor retrospective is opening to the public this Thursday. Exhibiting a selection of iconic images taken by the Ghanaian photographer during his six-decade career, it aims to highlight his role as a pioneering figure within modern photography.

Now ninety-two and living in the UK, Barnor recalls how he crossed continents and genres to further his knowledge of photography. As a studio photographer and photojournalist, he captured Ghana on the cusp of independence in the 1950s. He later introduced colour photography to the nation in the 1970s. In between these two pivotal chapters of his career, he moved to London, where he documented the city’s transformation into a multicultural metropolis in the post-war era. Working as a documentary and fashion photographer, he harnessed the power of photography to illuminate the multidimensionality of Black experience in Britain in the 1960s.

Drum Cover, Nigerian Edition 1967 @james_barnor_archives

In order to comprehend the power of Barnor’s images and his skill as a photographer, it is important to first understand the complex time he was living in. During the 1950s and 1960s, Britain was experiencing a wave of post-war migration as a result of the 1948 British Nationality Act, which granted people in the Commonwealth full rights to British Citizenship. Whilst this marked a watershed moment in the formation of Black Britain, it was also a dark chapter in the nation’s history with racism inherent in the media, politics and society-at-large. This racial intolerance culminated in the Notting Hill Riots of 1958, during which Black people were targeted in violent attacks by white mobs. In the political sphere, various acts were introduced throughout the 1960s which aimed to limit citizenship rights. It was against this backdrop that Barnor worked as a photographer, producing images which were not overtly politically or racially charged in nature, yet prove incredibly impactful given the socio-political landscape of the period.

Drum cover girl Erlin Ibreck, London, 1966 / Drum cover girl Marie Hallowi, London, 1966 @james_barnor_archives

Commissioned by Drum, the South African Anti-Apartheid journal, he photographed Black models engaging with the latest fashions in the streets of London. These were circulated internationally and have come to be known as pioneering images of Black beauty. Presenting a multi-national cohort of Black women against iconic British backdrops such as post boxes, telephone boxes and Underground signs, he visually manifested the merging of different cultures in post-war Britain. Whether he was photographing Erlin Ibreck leaning against a Jaguar in Kilburn, Marie Hallowi feeding birds in Trafalgar Square, or Mike Eghan leaping off the fountain at Piccadilly Circus, Barnor aimed to capture his subject’s essence and individuality at a time when Black Britain was triumphantly coming into being against a challenging socio-political backdrop.

Guests at the Baptism Ceremony of James Vanderpuije, London, early 1960s / Portrait of the sister of a friend of James Barnor, London, c. 1960 @james_barnor_archives

Barnor also photographed his friend’s weddings, christenings and parties. Taken for family albums, these documentary images were intended not for public consumption nor to make a political statement about racism or marginality, but rather to capture key milestones within the multicultural communities which were emerging in Britain at this time. Style was a tool of social and cultural transformation for Barnor’s subjects. Inspired by various factors such as Western culture, urban dress, group identity, African style and gender ideals, they harnessed the communicative power of clothing to visually manifest their own perspective of what constituted being Black and British at that time. Meticulously dressed, they exude a sense of joy and self-assurance as they become part of the social fabric of multicultural Britain.

Friends, Accra, late 1970s / Back to school, Accra, 1970s or 1980s @james_barnor_archives

Barnor’s images of London make up the second of three sections at the Serpentine exhibition. The first section is dedicated to portraits he took in his studio, EverYoung, in Accra during the 1950s, as well as his journalistic photographs of Ghanaian independence. The third and final section is made up of colour photographs taken in post-colonial Ghana on his return from Britain in the 1970s. What unites these three sections is a sense of joy and community. Barnor saw photography as a collaborative venture between the photographer and subject, which created a sense of intimacy. His images of both Ghana and Britain are powerful visual testaments of societies in transition during the latter half of the twentieth century.

By Violet Caldecott

References: 

Campt, Tina M., Image Matters, Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe (Duke University Press: Durham and London), 2012

Hall, Stuart, ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’, 1990, in Paul Gilroy and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Selected Writings on Race and Difference, Stuart Hall (Duke University Press: Durham and London), 2021

Olusoga, David, Black and British, A Forgotten History (Pan Macmillian London), 2017

Ed. Mussai, Renée, James Barnor, Ever Young (Autograph ABP: London) 2015

Park, Rianna Jade, How James Barnor’s Photographs Became Symbols of Black Glamour, Aperture, issue 242, New York, March 2021 (Aperture Foundation Inc: London) 2021

5 Minutes with… Bethan Carrick

As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Bethan discusses Donyale Luna, the ubiquity of blue jeans and wearing her grandparents’ clothes.

 

What is your dissertation about?

I am looking at BLITZ magazine (1980-91), one of the three ‘first-wave’ style magazines that began in 1980 along with The Face and i-D, and its articulation of cultural capital through its fashion pages. For the most part, I’m looking at the styling work of BLITZ’s fashion editor (1983-87), Iain R. Webb. He used visual strategies such as bricolage to forge the DIY aesthetic that typified street style and style magazines of this period.

 

What is your favourite thing that you’ve written/worked on/researched this year?

I loved researching Donyale Luna, the first black supermodel. I wrote my first essay on her representation in Harper’s Bazaar in the ‘60s. Looking into Luna demonstrated the complexity of representing black women in magazines made for and distributed to white women. Whilst researching, I was reminded of the widespread criticism of Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B’s song ‘WAP’ being ‘oversexualised’ and not appropriate for younger audiences. Black women in the public eye have continued to be exoticised and sexualised, but it’s a problem when they take control of their own representation? We’ve still got a long way to go, I think.

 

What is something you’ve read this year that you would recommend to anyone?

Like Lucy, Daniel Miller’s Stuff has stuck with me throughout the year. Miller and Sophie Woodward’s Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary about the tension between ephemerality and ubiquity of the blue jean is another really influential piece of writing for me. Finally (sorry, I couldn’t pick one), I can’t go without mentioning Caroline Evans’ The Mechanical Smile, which is something I have returned to constantly over the course of this year.

 

What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned this year?

One thing that surprised me is how little academic research has been done on the history of styling and stylists. Also, having read Carol Tulloch’s The Birth of Cool, I realised that there was room to expand and challenge the rigidity of academic writing. Tulloch’s more anecdotal writing was really inspiring.

 

What are you hoping to do next?

Have a (UK) holiday. Go shopping. Keep researching. Find a job. No real plans.

 

Has learning about dress history had any effect on your personal style?

100%. I am now more obsessive than ever about how each element of my outfit should match the other (colour, silhouette, style).

 

Favourite dress history image?

I love this image by Brassaï of a Parisian lesbian bar in c.1930 – especially because I realised that the woman to the right is wearing an ankle-length skirt. I find this fascinating. Was this an active choice to play with the suit, or was she trying to show that she was a woman as soon as she left the bar?

 

Brassaï, photograph taken at Le Monocle, Paris, c. 1930

 

What are you wearing today?

I am wearing navy blue platform Kickers, baggy dark Dickies jeans, a buttoned-up, grey collared polo under an oversized black knit jumper, and my grandad’s old white golfer hat. Library chic.

 

Where do you get your clothes from?

Mainly charity shops, eBay, Vinted or my grandma’s wardrobe.

 

Which outfit from dress history do you wish you could wear?

I love everything the ladies are wearing at the French seaside resort (I can’t remember the name) in Seeberger Brothers’ photographs: understated elegance.

 

How would you describe your style?

Grandma, but make it current.

 

Do you have an early fashion memory to share?

One day, when I was on holiday with my family and family friends, 7-year-old me decided that today was going to be the day where I debuted my new flowery Boden circle skirt that I had picked especially from the catalogue. I paired it with one of those jumpers that has a fake shirt collar and cuffs and used my sisters’ flowery belt as a scarf. I thought I looked very Audrey-Hepburn-meets-cast-of-Grease. I was so pleased with myself and asked my dad to be my photographer. I posed in front of a white wall whilst the wind was blowing in my hair. Everyone was staring at me, but I was LIVING it.

5 Minutes with… Lucy Corkish

As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Lucy, the co-editor of this blog, discusses Tamara de Lempicka, lidos and self-styling via eBay.

 

What is your dissertation about? 

I’m writing my dissertation on the artist Tamara de Lempicka, looking at her life as a process of self-fashioning. She’s most famous for the portraits (and self-portraits) she painted while living in Paris in the 1920s and 30s, but lots of people were/are aware of her because of her persona and her distinctive look. The details of her life are sketchy in lots of places – some biographers believe that she lied about her age right up until her death in 1980 – and she seems to have actively cultivated this image of herself as a kind of glamourous, film star-esque aristocrat. She would commission photographers to capture her in designer clothes, always with painted red lips and nails. She wore a lot of accessories and had a particular penchant for hats, in her later years matching her hat to her outfit. For most of her life, she seemed to crave independence, marrying her second husband on the promise that she could enjoy his money and his title but continue her own, largely separate life. Once, when she failed to return home to spend Christmas with her young daughter, leaving her in the care of her grandmother, the two of them burned her collection of designer hats in retaliation.

Tamara de Lempicka photographed by Willy Maywald, 1948-1949 (via Stained Jabot)

One of her most famous paintings, a self-portrait commissioned as the cover of Die Dame, shows her in the driver’s seat of a green Bugatti – in reality, she drove a yellow Renault. The image has been hailed as a symbol of the modern woman, and for me, it says a lot about how she saw herself. It can be tricky to unpick all the anecdotes surrounding her, which she often reworked and retold to portray herself in a flattering light, but researching her life has taught me that her moulding of the truth was an extension of her self-styling. It’s been fascinating getting to know the many overlapping sides of her.

Tamara de Lempicka, Autoportrait, 1929, oil on panel, private collection

What is your favourite thing that you’ve written/worked on/researched this year? 

I enjoyed writing my first essay on Margiela and memory, for which I watched the documentary Martin Margiela: In His Own Words. It was clear that his childhood memories played an essential role in his work and that his ideas around creating memories influenced his creativity. For example, at one show, the models – who walked among the audience – were perfumed with patchouli, playing on sensory memory. For my second essay, I looked at hundreds of images from ‘the golden age of the lido’ in 1930s Britain, which was, for me, great fun.

Bradford Lido, 1939 (via The Mirror)

What is something you’ve read this year that you would recommend to anyone?

Early in the year, we read the first chapter from Daniel Miller’s Stuff, titled ‘Why Clothing is not Superficial’. His discussion of Trinidadian ideas of the self as constantly evolving, existing on the surface (rather than somewhere buried within, built up incrementally over time) so that it must be sustained day by day in actions and choices – including in wardrobe choices – deepened my understanding of why clothes feel so important.

Where do you get your clothes from? 

I’m relatively serious about eBay. Closely monitoring saved search alerts and frantically trying to outbid any rivals in the final seconds of an auction has brought me lots of joy and frustration over the years, as well as a wardrobe full of things that I love to look at but that don’t necessarily fit me well. I keep a collection of screenshots of the wildest photos that people use to sell their clothes. Also, charity shops in fancy areas and anything that my friends are getting rid of.

Screenshot (eBay app), 2020

How would you describe your style? 

It was described to me today as ‘very last season Arket’, which I think is fairly accurate. I like to look at extravagant, sparkly clothes, but I want to feel as comfy as I can get away with, so cosy jumpers in the winter, cotton dresses in the summer and when in doubt, jeans. Anything that could be pyjamas but could also be worn out is the goal.

 

Bibliography

Claridge, Laura. Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence (London, 2001)

De Lempicka-Foxhall, Kizette and Charles Phillips. Passion by Design: The Art and Times of Tamara de Lempicka (New York, 1987)

Holzemer, Reiner. Martin Margiela: In His Own Words, cinematographer Toon Illegems (2020; London: Dogwoof)

Miller, Daniel. ‘Why Clothing is not Superficial’ in Stuff (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 12-41

Performing the Maternal Body

The maternal body is still a contentious subject. In the 21st century, the British tabloids have continued to eerily rate celebrity bumps. In retaliation, women have taken social media sharing their heart-breaking realities of miscarriages and difficult births. Of course, these discussions are vital for changing the abject tabloid outlook on maternity. But it shouldn’t just be down to women. What power do men have to start the conversation and subvert rigid ideals around the maternal body?

As Francesca Granata discusses in Experimental Fashion, Western systems of thought around the maternal body have been consistently reductive. Since the Enlightenment and the valuation of dualism/the Cartesian model, men have aligned women to nature and purity, thenceforth the birth process has been dematerialised and elevated to mythical status. Neglect and misrepresentation of the female experience is the product of this system of thought which, in turn, has contributed to the success of femininity.

Leigh Bowery, Look 9, July 1989, by Fergus Greer. https://www.artsy.net/artwork/fergus-greer-leigh-bowery-session-ii-look-9

Leigh Bowery, a performance artist and designer notable for his work in the ‘80s, experimented with the subject of the maternal body. Throughout his career, Bowery was fascinated with the leaky and malleable body.

Bowery performed a piece at Wigstock (New York) in 1993 wearing an oversized costume that features a distinctive bump on his stomach. At the end of the performance, Bowery gets up onto a metal table (that uncomfortably resembles a post-mortem bench) and spreads his legs. His assistant (Nicola Bowery) peels through the stretch material between Bowery’s legs and reveals herself, fully naked and covered in red liquid: “The first baby born at Wigstock!” Bowery shouts.

This graphic and violent scene, Granata says, “externalises and renders visible the problematic Western understanding of the maternal body and, by extension, the female body.” The material contrast between Leigh’s oversized costume and Nicola’s naked body inserted into the seams of the costume challenges the idea that the maternal body as a dematerialised object and space, whilst also drawing on the violence of the birth process.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtZ_cnMsWo4

About 30 years on, the ideas around the maternal body and gender performance have inevitably progressed. Bowery’s avant-garde birthing performances relied on nuance and violence whereas now, subtle, more empathetic forms are applied to the exposition of the maternal body.

Drag has become a mainstream form of entertainment in the UK. Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK first aired in 2019, introducing a wider audience to the scene. And drag queens, just like Bowery, have incorporated the pregnant body into their performance.

In Series 1, Episode 7, of Drag Race UK (2019), judge Michelle Visage commented on Divina de Campo’s artificial baby-bump: “There’s nothing more drag than a pregnant drag queen… It’s a big middle finger to society.” The runway task for this episode was to dress up one female family member. Divina’s sister (who was given the name Delisha de Campo) was four months pregnant when she came onto the show. Divina’s empathy for her sister’s maternal condition is palpable and Ru Paul said that the subtle adaptation to the silhouette was “a stroke of genius.”

The reaction to Divina’s bump demonstrates the maternal body in direct opposition to the fashionable silhouette of womenswear, as well as being in opposition to the rigid construction of femininity. As Granata says: “The twentieth-century fashion body remains one of the most articulate attempts at the creation of a ‘perfect’ and perfectly contained body restrained and sealed.”  In the 21st century, the costumed pregnant body defies this entirely.

Divina de Campo with sister Delisha de Campo, episode 7 of Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK, http://thenormcanconform.com/rupauls-drag-race-uk-s1-ep7-the-drag-family-scandal-of-the-century/

The performance of the clothed body is fertile ground for progressive ideas. Men costuming the maternal body encourages the normalisation of women’s lumps and bumps and at the same time disrupts the idea that issues surrounding femininity are purely a woman’s issue to deal with. Performance art and drag are examples of ways to subvert the norms. By way of creative freedom and empathy for female matter, the Modern man can blur gender boundaries and inspire a powerful subversion which at once frees them and their peers.

By Bethan Eleri Carrick

Bibliography

Francesca Granata, Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body. I.B Tauris, 2017.

The Legend of Leigh Bowery, Documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIS79ZQxYiw

 

 

 

5 Minutes with… Kathryn Reed

As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Kathryn, the co-editor of this blog, discusses ghostliness, layering necklaces for Zoom and the elusive photographer Nina Leen.

 

What are you wearing today?

A brown halter neck top over a striped button-down shirt. I didn’t realise that the shirt had a button missing when I picked it off the £1 rail in Brixton last week – hence the layering.  Also: a long black skirt and brown work boots with paint on. They make me look artistic.

Has learning about dress history had any effect on your personal style? 

Having seminars on Zoom has definitely made me wear more necklaces at once.

What is your dissertation about?

It’s on the photography of Nina Leen. She was born in Russia and moved to America in 1939; from then on, she became a really prolific photographer for Life magazine (and was one of the very first women to work there). She took some amazing, perceptive photographs of American culture and fashion in the 1940s and 1950s, but she’s an elusive figure and barely anything has been written about her. I’m interested in how her outsider status shaped the pictures, especially in the context of the all-American middle-class image that Life was promoting.

What is your favourite thing that you’ve worked on this year?

I wrote my first essay about the ghostliness of clothing that isn’t being worn – I find it so interesting to consider the reasons empty clothes can sometimes unsettle us. In the essay, I compared the shrouded figures in William Hope’s spirit photography with Eugène Atget’s photos of deserted Parisian shop windows. I was quite frightened while writing it, but it was really fun.

Eugène Atget, Boulevard de Strasbourg, Corsets, Paris, 1912. Accessed via https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/286216
William Hope, Elderly couple with a young female ‘spirit’, c. 1920. Accessed via https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/objects/co8228833/elderly-couple-with-female-spirit-photograph

And your favourite image?

At the moment, my favourite is one by Nina Leen from Life’s December 1944 feature on teenagers. It documents a trend at the time for teenagers to wear masculine clothes, and I love this picture of a girl who had borrowed her dad and brother’s clothes to change into after school.

Nina Leen, ‘Pat Woodruff wears after-school costume of blue jeans and a checked shirt’, Life, 11 December 1944.

The Whimsical Works of Marcel Vertès

Marcel Vertès epitomised innovation in twentieth-century design and fashion illustration. Born in Hungary, he moved to Paris and studied at the Académie Julian. He travelled to New York frequently, even staging his first show there in 1937. With the outbreak of World War II, Vertès fled Paris and settled in New York, his home for the next decade. He returned to Paris in his later years and spent the majority of his time there before his death in 1966. Among his many talents, Vertès experimented with costume design in film, painting, needlepoint, and silkscreen prints. However, his illustrated advertisements for Elsa Schiaparelli will always be my favourite.

Harper’s Bazaar, February 1944

Vertès created some of his more notable works for Schiaparelli’s perfume advertisements from the late 1930s through the 1950s. He created numerous fantastical illustrations for her ‘Shocking Schiaparelli’ campaign featured in Harper’s Bazaar. Vertès’ playful style shines through in these advertisements. Many depicted flirty and poetic drawings that often incorporated elements of the mystical. Women became dainty nymphs and fairies surrounded by autumn leaves or spring flowers as they danced around the page. The perfume bottle, designed to mimic the female form, often had bouquets of flowers blooming from the top, representing the scent of the perfume as well as implying the femininity a woman would attain while wearing it. Vertès’ passion for other art forms also manifested in his works for Schiaparelli. He frequently paralleled ethereal depictions of women with artistic tools such as painter’s palettes or bouquets made of sheet music. The designs were often suggestive and used various objects, such as a palette or leaf, to conceal yet hint at the intimate parts of the female body.

Harper’s Bazaar, October 1943
Harper’s Bazaar, April 1939
Harper’s Bazaar, October 1944
Harper’s Bazaar, October 1940

Vertès also wove societal undertones into his advertisements for Schiaparelli, altering the connotation of the campaign according to the era’s values. One of his drawings depicts a sailor on a date in a park with the female-shaped perfume bottle. This advertisement was released in 1942, and its drawing hinted at the ‘beauty and duty’ ideal that women and girls were encouraged to uphold during the war in order to bolster morale. Women pitched in for the war effort in various physical ways, but the illustration signified to women that, by wearing Schiaparelli’s perfume, they could demonstrate their patriotism while still embodying the very essence of beauty. On the other hand, one of Vertès’ 1953 illustrations exploded with the colour pink. It featured a woman beaming in a gown reminiscent of the ‘New Look’ style and high heels, the epitome of traditional, feminine beauty. With the war over, the men returned, pushing women out of workforce positions and back into the home. The fashion industry once again favoured the restrictive, ultra-feminine ensembles that signalled a return to ‘normalcy’ in society. Vertès subtly captured this shift in his illustrations.

Harper’s Bazaar, November 1942
Harper’s Bazaar, May 1953

Marcel Vertès also collaborated with Elsa Schiaparelli in designing the costumes for the 1952 film Moulin Rouge. He won two Academy Awards for his work, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. Beyond these achievements, Vertès painted murals for both private and public display, including one for the Café Carlyle at the famous Carlyle Hotel in New York City. He even explored fashion design, creating pieces that showcased his whimsical illustrations.

Marcel Vertès
MOULIN ROUGE (MARIE ACCOSTE LAUTREC), 1952
Gallery 19c
Marcel Vertès Mural at Café Carlyle via Tillett Lighting Design Associates

https://www.instagram.com/p/CKRdONIhqbJ/

An artist in every sense of the word, Marcel Vertès worked with a diverse array of mediums, but stayed true to his light, flowing style with every project he undertook. Vertès translated culture into his illustrations and portrayed ‘Shocking Schiaparelli’ as more than a perfume. Rather, his drawings enabled the viewer to envision and desire a way of life.

By Genevieve Davis

 

Sources:

“Advertisement: Shocking de Schiaparelli (Schiaparelli).” Harper’s Bazaar. New York, United States: Hearst Magazine Media, Inc, April 1939.

“Advertisement: Shocking de Schiaparelli (Schiaparelli).” Harper’s Bazaar. New York, United States: Hearst Magazine Media, Inc, October 1940.

“Advertisement: Shocking de Schiaparelli (Schiaparelli).” Harper’s Bazaar. New York, United States: Hearst Magazine Media, Inc, November 1942.

“Advertisement: Shocking de Schiaparelli (Schiaparelli).” Harper’s Bazaar. New York, United States: Hearst Magazine Media, Inc, October 1943.

“Advertisement: Shocking de Schiaparelli (Schiaparelli).” Harper’s Bazaar. New York, United States: Hearst Magazine Media, Inc, February 1944.

“Advertisement: Shocking de Schiaparelli (Schiaparelli).” Harper’s Bazaar. New York, United States: Hearst Magazine Media, Inc, October 1944.

“Advertisement: Shocking de Schiaparelli (Schiaparelli).” Harper’s Bazaar. New York, United States: Hearst Magazine Media, Inc, May 1953.

The Annex Galleries. “Marcel Vertes Biography | Annex Galleries Fine Prints.” Accessed March 18, 2021. https://www.annexgalleries.com/artists/biography/3209/Vertes/Marcel.