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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
Last week, I watched Helmut Newton: The Bad and The Beautiful. This candid biopic explores Newton’s complex legacy as a photographer through a series of his most provocative images and interviews with the women who featured in them. Amongst Newton’s iconic shots of Claudia Schiffer, Charlotte Rampling and Marianne Faithful, I found myself struck by a grainy black and white photograph hanging on the wall of his New York apartment. A cropped shot of a woman’s legs in stockings, dramatically illuminated against a dark background, it is an evocative rendering of the female form. Whilst it possesses the same sensual quality as Newton’s photographs, it is not his work. It was taken by Else Neulander Neuman, otherwise known as Yva, the Weimar photographer who had mentored Newton in the early days of his career.
Yva was a leading photographer in Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s. Inspired by the creative atmosphere of the Bauhaus, Objectivism and German Expressionism movements, she used theatrical lighting and clean geometric lines, to create a sophisticated and refined image of glamour. In the male-dominated sphere of fashion photography which often propagated a sexualised model of femininity, her elegant and allusive photographs of women provided a refreshing outlook on female beauty.
Yva’s most iconic images were her stocking advertisements. Using close-cropped shots and theatrical lighting, she put the focus on the texture of the garment and immersed the female viewer in an act of ‘haptic seeing’. The photograph which Newton had hung on his wall was from an advertisement she shot for UHU in 1929 titled Schöne Beine in schönen Strümpfen (Beautiful Legs in Beautiful Stockings). The dramatic lighting of the woman’s legs against the nebulous dark background serves not only to highlight the form of the woman’s knees, shins and ankles, but also to emphasise the contrast between the grainy texture of the mass-produced stockings and the soft satin of her shoes. In its rich and sensuous depiction of the different textures, it encourages the women to imagine themselves wearing the stockings, with the visual focus not solely on the leg, nor solely on the stocking, but rather on the relationship between the item of clothing and the body. Yva’s photographs for magazines such as Die Dame and Elegante Welt provided a feminine perspective of products, engaging with female consumers’ sense of sight as well as touch.
Looking at Yva’s work, I have come to understand Newton’s photography in a different way. As shown by the stocking advertisement he had hung in his flat, he drew inspiration from her use of ‘haptic seeing’ to immerse the women in a multi-sensory experience of the latest fashions. Although he was not a woman, having understood the world through Yva’s eyes and indeed lens, he created photographs which spoke directly to the female consumer and her needs and desires.
By Violet Caldecott
Belting, Hans, ‘The Transparency of the Medium: The Photographic Image,’ in An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2011)
Hatton, Hayley, Yva: shattered vision, The tragic hidden legacy of one of history’s most visionary photographers, Dazed and Confused, July 2008
Dress is so intimately linked to human anatomy. It has the capacity to hide, manipulate and expose our ‘natural’ contours and our skin tone. Dress’s poetic relationship to human anatomy is what separates us from other mammals. It is a truism that our physical bodies have been on the line in the last year. We have been overly conscious of the status of our own healthy bodies as well as those we care about. And by virtue, the value of our dressed bodies have been impacted.
Contemporary American designer and trauma nurse Oluwole Olosunde obliquely addresses fashion’s intimate links with our primal form through his collections. His comfortable-looking streetwear designs quite literally strip the human body to its core. In an interview for The Business of Fashion, Olosunde highlights the similarities between his continued work as a trauma nurse and as a designer: he says in both roles the individual has to have an eye for detail, an understanding of human anatomy and human sensations, but most importantly have empathy. He also notes that both industries have been irreversibly shaken by the pandemic as both have spotlighted the values concerned with healthy bodies.
Olosunde was not the first to have the human body at the front of his design. In 1938, Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali collaborated to create the Skeleton dress. Under dimmed lights and by focusing on only the front of the figure, the woman wearing this silk crepe dress would have seamlessly blended in with the crowd of women wearing similarly supple dresses. With the lights up and back turned, however, it would expose the true intention of the trapunto quilting technique. Unmistakably, the dress replicates the human skeleton and creates an almost second skin through the contradictory soft texture of the protruding elements.
Both artists tested the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable within their artistic discipline during a time of increasing anxiety. Schiaparelli’s career has been defined by these surrealist experiments of dress that humorously played with the visual language surrounding the female body and fashion dictates. Her fingernail gloves are another example of this. Dali was similarly concerned with the use of the female body to represent the essence of human anatomy as seen in Voluptuous Death. In a time of anxiety, fear, and economic hardship in Europe, the double image of the human body represents the inescapable and impossible situation of navigating the bridge between internal and external relations.
Conversely, the human body has also been overtly used in fashionable dress as a means to liberate. Mildred Orrick’s 1940 design was informed by a detailed study of the body’s propensity to move. Orrick’s leotard was created with the freedom of movement in mind. In 1943, Harper’s Bazaar praised the leotard: “[the leotard is] a new idea, leading towards the 21st century and the cosmic costumes of Flash Gordon’s Supergirl.” Bazaar was clearly aligning the leotard with the super potential of women in their newly liberated clothing. However, this statement was premature as Orrick’s leotard would not be a success. The ‘body suit’ in fashion would become popular much later, in the 1970s.
Male bodies have also come under examination when exploring dress as a supposed means of liberation in the 20th century. Eldridge de Paris, a former black panther member, invented the Penis Pants to represent the idea that men have been castrated through clothing. “Clothing is an extension of the fig leaf — it put our sex inside our bodies,” Cleaver told Newsweek in 1975, “My pants put sex back where it should be.” (I feel like things may have been easier for him if he had just designed a skirt…)
Reasserting the human body through fashion is the purest form of social commentary. During this time of continued uncertainty and anxiety around our bodies, the human body as a design element in dress helps us to navigate our human existence. By appropriating a visual rhetoric that many or all can understand, it encourages empathy which in turn establishes a community of people that can overcome societal structures, bringing them back to their primal form.
For hundreds of years, women’s fashion has been a magnet for satire and mockery. A woman interested in fashion, astutely observed by feminist scholar Sandra Clark, is often associated with two ‘fruitful themes of misogyny’: frivolous excess and overt sexuality. In a brief (yet repeating) and curious phenomenon, London in the year 1620 saw such satire distort itself into an attack on a particular type of fashionable women – those who were dressing and acting like men.
We should, first, imagine ourselves in the bustling streets of London in the year 1620; King James I was the first Scottish king as the increasingly urban capital became populated with an emerging merchant class that was – controversially, of course – wealthier than ever before. The English Renaissance was at its peak, and theatrical culture was flourishing. Nestled among this transforming social landscape of seventeenth-century England was the strange and sudden condemnation of women wearing men’s clothes.
Evidence of this first emerged in a letter written on 25 January 1620 by prolific author John Chamberlain to a friend outside of the capital. A new fashion was spreading across London, it seemed – he wrote of women in ‘broad brimmed hats’, ‘pointed doublets’, with their hair ‘cut short’. ‘The world is very far out of order’, he lamented. King James I must have too felt a disruption to gendered stability and instructed all bishops and preachers in London to ‘to inveigh vehemently and bitterly … against the insolence of our women’ via their sermons.
Soon after the King’s reported orders to the pulpit, on February 9 1620 an anonymously written pamphlet was printed and distributed around London, hatefully entitled Hic Mulier, or, the Man-Woman. A vitriolic document, it is addressed to the fictional titular character Hic Mulier, a cross-dressing woman who has ‘cast off the ornaments of [her] sexes, to put on the garments of Shame’. These garments of shame, much like the letter of John Chamberlain, included a ‘broad-brim’d Hatte, and wanton feather’, and the ‘loose, lascivious embracement of a French doublet, being all unbutton’d to entice all of one[‘s] shape’. To this pamphlet’s anonymous author, the Hic Mulier type, in her confusingly masculine-yet-seductive garments was represented in growing numbers of ‘city wives’ – the new class of wealthy mercantile (not aristocrats nor gentry) women.
Up until this point, fashion was something heavily regulated by the Crown. Sumptuary legislation ensured that only those of high status could wear fine clothes and fabrics like lace and silk. But repeated proclamations of these laws in 1574, 1577, 1580, 1588, and 1597, can only suggest alarm from the government at the growing agency of fashion. For the first time, too, the legislation specifically imposes restrictions on not just men but their wives. Women, clearly, in the context of apparel, were becoming increasingly independent. Fashion itself was upsetting social and gendered order, and as the merchant class became established, the explosion of the cross-dressing controversy in 1620 epitomised this this. Indeed, in the weeks following Hic Mulier, or, the Man-Woman, two more satirist pamphlets featuring the cross-dressing women were rapidly published and circulated.
In such a rigid and orderly society, men’s clothes were obviously perceived differently on women’s bodies. The scandalously unbuttoned doublet worn by the androgyne in Hic Mulier was not uncommon in men for in the early seventeenth century; indeed, it was fashionable particularly for artists or poets to sport a somewhat unkempt appearance with open collars and their doublets undone. A woman in an unbuttoned doublet, of course, was no longer melancholic and artistic but immodest and enticing, revealing the natural shape of her body. According to the pamphlets, the cross-dressed woman was the antithesis to the modest, feminine woman, and ‘will give her body to have her bodie deformed’. Crucially, to these moralists, Hic Mulier was conversely masculine in both behaviour and appearance (even carrying a dagger for duelling) yet promiscuous and ‘bawdy’.
This masculine fashion trend clearly exacerbated patriarchal fears of the overtly sexual woman who both looked and indeed acted like a man. But the issue of fashion is also integral – to moralists, wearing masculine clothing served to accentuate a woman’s sexuality, but also highlighted her vanity and frivolity. Unsurprisingly, the illustration on the title page of Hic Mulier depicts a woman in a broad-brimmed feathered hat looking at herself in a mirror.
The only evidence of these masculine-presenting women is in the written criticism and condemnation by men. But it’s affirming that, against the backdrop of socially fluid, urban and increasingly commodified London, a subverting trend in women’s fashion was able to briefly disturb the rigidity of the royal court, pulpit, and press. Although we will never know how many women really cross-dressed in early seventeenth century or what type of women participated, one thing is clear: as long as women’s changing fashions has long caused crises among the male ruling classes, women have been purposefully dressing to subvert, dupe, disguise and express themselves.
By Kathryn Reed
Clark, Sandra, ‘”Hic Mulier”, “Haec Vir”, and the Controversy over Masculine Women, Studies in Philology 82 2 (1985), pp. 157-183
Hooper, Wilfrid, ‘The Tudor Sumptuary Laws’, The English Historical Review 30 119 (1915), p. 433-449
Newman, Karen, Fashioning Femininity: Femininity and English Renaissance Drama (Chicago, 1991)
Vincent, Susan J., ‘“When I am in Good Habitt”: Clothes in English Culture c. 1550 – c. 1670’ (PhD dissertation, University of York, 2002)
As long as there has been fashion, there have been fakes. Couture was copied from its earliest days: sketchers or buyers working for counterfeiters were sent to shows to bring back new designs for replication as soon as they were available. Garment labels were developed, in part, as a measure to combat the copyists – Madeleine Vionnet even went as far as to mark her labels with her own thumbprint. Others frequently altered their label designs to stay one step ahead of the thousands of counterfeit labels being produced. In France, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture was set up so that designers could register their original works in an attempt to protect themselves against counterfeiting. In the United States, however, the legality of copying remained murky. In a video created for the 2014-15 exhibition Faking It: Originals, Copies, and Counterfeits at The Museum at FIT, US experts on fashion law note the legal differences between counterfeit items – “made in exact imitation … with intention to deceive” – and knockoffs, which are similar but not identical to the original item, as well as the lack of copyright protections for fashion design in the US.
It is standard practice for artists to copy masterpieces as part of the process of developing their own style and, in the same way, fashion designers are able to hone their skills by observing and replicating the work of master couturiers. But just as commercial forgery is widespread in the art world, so in fashion, the most popular high-end designs inspire corporate copycats. These range from terrorist groups and drug cartels, who exploit the high profit margins that can be achieved by selling counterfeit ‘It bags’ produced using cheap materials and labour, to highly creative designers like Dapper Dan, who began riffing on designer logos as part of his own fashion line in the 1980s. In the grey area between these ethical extremes lie brands like Fashion Nova, who reinterpret – as quickly and as minimally as possible – the work of more expensive and often emerging designers, to sell to the masses at a fraction of the cost.
For those with an appetite for high-end fashion but without the means to purchase it, fakes that mimic the style (without necessarily replicating the standards of production) offer an affordable alternative. Excepting those that are produced in a moral vacuum, counterfeit designer goods are a democratising power for consumers. However, the cost to the designers – and to emerging designers, in particular – is self-evident. Furthermore, the barefaced copying arguably contributes to the homogenisation of style by negating the need for self-styling through innovation. An alternative to this can be found in the ‘Versage’ style noted by Allyn Gaestel in Lagos: she writes that the self-styling is just as important to the overall look as the ‘knock-off Versace’, and that, often, the garments themselves don’t feature a logo, but rather an aesthetic nod to the designer brand that has been reinterpreted for the Lagosian consumer.
With the widespread access to visual culture that the internet affords comes a partial exposure of the processes of creativity, which almost always involve references to existing creations. The growing acceptance of this fact can open up conversations around copying and inspiration, thereby facilitating respectful homages rather than theft. This same access to images means that those who do copy without crediting or sincerely reinterpreting their inspirations are likely to be targeted by watchdogs like Diet Prada. The increased awareness of references means that – regardless of the law – those who do reuse logos, whether for prestige by association or the complex forms of expression associated with ‘post-parodies’ (as described by Charles Colman), are encouraged to use them innovatively, creating designs that are evidently not direct copies of ‘originals’.
This form of homage, which is so important in hip-hop, brings us back to the work of Dapper Dan. When Gucci largely copied a Dapper Dan jacket in 2017, they initially rejected the idea that the design had been stolen. After much furore online, Gucci partnered with Dapper Dan, eventually opening a store in Harlem. This reclamation of the prestige of copying can be seen elsewhere in Diesel’s ‘DEISEL’ pop-up on Canal Street in 2018. With the explosion of visual culture for all online, attitudes towards copying in fashion are being forced to evolve and adapt to an acceptance of creative reinterpretation.
Gunne Sax was founded in 1967, the Summer of Love, by San Francisco-based dressmakers Elle Bailey and Carol Miller. The brand became hugely popular under the direction of Jessica McClintock in the 1970s. Known for their prairie dresses, Gunne Sax designs incorporated elements from various romanticised time periods, from the front-lacings of a medieval kirtle, through the low-cut square neck of Renaissance French gowns, out to Victorian mutton sleeves and the lace inserts of Edwardian tea dresses. They also often resembled traditional folk costume – many look like refashionings of the German dirndl, for instance. The overall effect is one of fairytale escapism. This is a European heritage through American eyes. In 1984, McClintock herself told People magazine ‘I sell romance and fantasy’. The name of the dress, however, suggests the prairie skirts worn by colonisers in the mid-19th century. The dresses were popular with hippies in the 1970s, connecting back to the more progressive politics of the sixties and therefore appealing to the young women for whom they were made. Yet the invocation of “traditional values” in the whitewashed historical references and relative modesty of the designs made them double agents, and therefore supremely financially viable.
The overarching sense of historical fantasy is picked up by Laird Borrelli-Persson in an article for Vogue.com in 2016, entitled ‘How the Gunne Sax Dress Went From Cliché to Cool’. She writes that “at the end of what was, for many, an annus horribilis, the escapist fantasy aspect of Gunne Sax dresses resonates and makes them look fresh, not frumpy.” 2016 might well have been a horrible year for America, but 2020 was unfathomable in terms of collective trauma. If we take this need for escape and nostalgia as a key factor in the resurgence of Gunne Sax-style prairie dresses, it makes sense that we have seen so many iterations of the prairie dress in recent years, in a time of such huge socio-political upheaval. From Alexander McQueen spring/summer 2019 and Gucci fall/winter 2020, to Cecilie Bahnsen and Batsheva autumn/winter 2019, to Ganni and Dôen’s most recent collections, prairie dresses have already been established as a wardrobe essential of sorts.
But then came cottagecore, an internet aesthetic which revolves around a romanticised western pastoral, free from the urban spaces to which so many of us have been confined through quarantine. As Rowan Ellis points out in her video ‘why is cottagecore so gay?’, cottagecore is not a subculture, but imagery consumed online, through social media sites like Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and TikTok. But even if a cottage in the woods is unavailable to most, there are active elements of a cottagecore lifestyle that are available to all. Speaking to i-D, 16-year-old Redditor InfamousBees says “I can make bread in a tiny city apartment. I can grow herbs in my windowsill or in flowerpots or in old mugs. I can surround myself with loved, cared-for plants that can thrive on little sunlight. I don’t need a huge yard to have a few chickens or a big, fluffy dog. I certainly don’t need a cottage to be vulnerable with my girlfriend.” These small things are all examples of behavioural activation, small goals that result in positive rewards. The queer roots of this focus on handmaking and craft are outlined beautifully by Eleanor Medhurst in her article ‘Cottagecore Lesbians And The Landdyke Legacy’. Here, she discusses landdyke ecofeminism, which is based on a network of communities of lesbian activists. One function of these communes has traditionally been “living important values through everyday acts”, like the small rituals that link teenagers looking at images online to the aesthetic that underlines those images. Gunne Sax dresses, as they are now necessarily bought vintage – by virtue of the closure of the brand – play into the ecological concerns of cottagecore enthusiasts, but also hold a sense of the significance and integrity of something owned before. They hold stories of the past and therefore connect us to other human beings. There is community in pre-owned clothing.
Yet this is a community in which few can participate. Gunne Sax dresses, though labelled “affordable” by Borrelli-Persson, tend to sell at around £300 a garment, which is unreasonably expensive for most. They are also size restrictive – though a prairie dress looks great on everyone, most Gunne Sax examples for sale are between an XS and an S – even as a mid-size girl, I’ve yet to find one that will fit me. These price and size restrictions reflect some of the more problematic aspects of the aesthetic, which align with its predecessors. Ronald Creagh identifies hippies as the last guard of utopian socialism, following in the footsteps of the Romantics and William Morris, but I would argue that cottagecore is reflective of this ideology, too. It falls into many of the same pitfalls – an idea from the mind of those who are alienated from the real toil of farm life, who do not know the struggles of working the land, and who think of it only as “simple”, at their most detached approaching Marie Antoinette and her model farm, Le Hameau de la Reine.
A third problem with the cottagecore aesthetic is the exclusion of BIPOC – if you look under the hashtags for Gunne Sax, almost every photo is of a thin white woman. Indeed, many of the touchpoints of the aesthetic are of colonial Western Europe. Leah Sinclair argues that “black women embracing cottagecore is an act of defiance”. Like many exercises in reclamation, it is both ambivalent and powerful. Some of my favourite BIPOC cottagecore creators include @hillhousevintage, @obrienandolive, @sallyomo, @puffybunni, @victoriamisu and @camriehewie.
However, the white supremacist possibilities and the traditionally patriarchal values espoused by the aesthetic have drawn interest from alt-right circles, particularly through the figure of the tradwife, a woman whose position is based on traditional wifely activities, namely cooking, cleaning and babymaking. It’s substantially different from being a housewife, a job which (like many caring professions) is vastly undervalued in society today, because it relies on an ideology that dictates that women are naturally more gentle, more submissive, and weaker. It’s also clearly trans- and homophobic. In so many ways, it is the opposite of the WLW cottagecore community. The danger in an aesthetic, perhaps even more so than a subculture, is that the focus on imagery rather than politics allows for the visual markers of a group to be taken up by those who actively wish harm to others who might look or dress quite like them. Ultimately, the success of cottagecore online is its marketability. To span both sides of the political spectrum is quite a feat, and there’s huge commercial potential to be tapped, which is, I’m sure, partly why we’ve seen such a proliferation of Gunne Sax-style dresses in the past few years, and why the imagery has been pushed forward by the algorithms: it makes people buy. But even if this is the drive behind its popularity, the value of community and care, environmental activism, handmaking and crafts which cottagecore encourages are not lessened by that fact. If anything, it provides a drive to make a world where these things are valued more.
Isla Simpson seems to live in a world bedecked in the beauty of her own creation. The multifaceted designer has adorned stationery, china, mirrors, linens, and candles with her delightfully romantic visions of climbing ivy, budding roses, and silky ribbons, creating a portfolio that is nothing short of a chintzy fairytale. Before she lent her hand to the world of lush interiors and painted papers, Simpson spent a decade and a half working in accessories design, an experience she says informs her work now but also gave her courage to set off on her own away from the world of fashion. To add further to her impressive resume, Simpson is a Documenting Fashion alum of sorts, having studied with Dr. Rebecca Arnold during their time at Central Saint Martins! Below, we caught up with Simpson about the journey she’s taken following the passion that has always tugged at her (surely bow-tied) heartstrings.
I’ve garnered from your social media and your lovely website that you started your career working in fashion (and I’ve also gathered that you might be eager to talk about it! No pressure if you are not, of course). How did you enter into the fashion industry and what did your career in the fashion world entail?
I knew from the moment I arrived at Saint Martin’s that accessories design was for me, so I worked as a weekend shop girl at Anya Hindmarch and went straight into women’s handbag design on graduation. I worked for various brands over 15 years, designing everything from the shape of the bag and purses to the metal componentry and the leathers. It was a niche career, but I’d engineered myself into the ‘It bag’ era, so my skill set was in demand.
What made you decide to depart from the fashion industry to start your independent career as a designer and illustrator?
Longevity in my field has always been important to me. The generation of designers above me all seemed to disappear after 40, so I knew I had a problem on the horizon. I could foresee the industry would only support me if I went into middle management in an age-appropriate brand. The only way to future-proof myself was to set up on my own, and I thought it was scarier not to try…
I should add I was also creatively burnt out, too. When I entered the industry, we designed the traditional two seasons a year. By the time I left, it was nudging eight collections. It took a pandemic to stop those product-churning cogs, even though we all knew it was wrong.
Do you find that your time in fashion informs the way you work now? Have you reshaped your creative process as you work independently?
Absolutely! Fashion training was second to none, I learnt everything I know standing on the factory floor (my factories were amazing), drawing technical drawings, software packages etc. You have to meet the deadline; the buck stops with you.
When that chapter closed, I had to ‘reboot and unplug’ myself from trends, and the merchandising team whispering ‘bestseller’ in my ear. I sought inspiration in the British Library archives and old country houses. I allowed myself to be besotted with everything chintzy and feminine, for no reason other than my enjoyment.
I now only design products that I truly love, in the hope that my followers love them too. Because my designs come from a place of true passion, and respect for chintz patterns, that sustains me through the tough times such as 2020.
You work with such a wide variety of media – gorgeous papers, linens and, of course, the iPad. Do you find that your approach to illustration changes across each?
It definitely keeps things fresh! The uniting aesthetic is that my work is always quite flat, respecting that tradition of graphic, block printing in chintz surface pattern.
Sadly, few new chintz patterns are designed – it’s just no longer commercially viable to pay a designer for weeks to hand paint as they would have done in the old days. I’ve developed techniques that mimic the textures and brushes of old chintzes on the iPad, which means I can design that old-school look faster. All the brands I collaborate with are in a hurry, so there’s no time for scanning in and cleaning up.
Your work seems so steeped in the lush beauty of British history. Are there any particular periods or styles of design history that inform your work?
I used to spend hours at the Museum of Costume in Bath as a teenager which probably tells you everything you need to know about my love for Regency aesthetic. I’m drawn to the sentimentality of Victoriana, but stylistically I’m always trying to return to the 80s/90s – the cosy chapter of my childhood.
Is there a relationship between your personal style and your designs?
The two are now so intertwined, I barely know where one begins and the other starts…I want ruffles on my dresses, bed linen and my linen hand towel designs.
In the fashion years, I had to suppress my own style in favour of whichever accessories brand I was designing for and represented. Now, I just feel unapologetically myself – you could come back in twenty years’ time and the house will still be full of blousey curtains and pie-crust collars. It’s just part of my DNA.
Finally, this might be a bit selfish, but it seems that you have an unbelievable collection of vintage ribbons and textiles and I’m so curious to have a metaphorical peek: is there one ribbon or swatch that has been particularly inspiring or comforting to you during this year spent inside?
I used to feel embarrassed about being a grown woman collecting ribbons, but I am in good company on Instagram, so I’ll happily share.
My Mum studied Italian in Naples as a mature student, and I used to visit her during the holidays. This silky swatch came from the most fantastic vintage ribbon shop – I wish I could remember the address – I’d give my right arm to return to. The woven underside is as beautiful as the top. I’m launching lots of embroidered table linen designs this year, all of which were designed during the pandemic year, when I had to make do and be resourceful with my inspiration. Ribbons make the best colourway and construction research.
Suits have been considered ‘naturally masculine’ since their birth in the late seventeenth century, as argued by fashion scholar Anne Hollander. Tracing their modern evolution back to the Enlightenment, when a rediscovery of Ancient Greek and Roman ideals took place, Hollander explains that the survival of modern suits is due to their simultaneous suggestion of classical nudity and confident male sexuality. In Italy, the sartorial suit has come to represent the quintessential mise of elegant and fashionable men, reinforced by the outfits of two characters embodying an image of Italian masculinity and style recognised worldwide: Marcello Rubini of La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960), and his modern reincarnation, Jep Gambardella, the protagonist of Paolo Sorrentino’s film La Grande Bellezza (2013). Their suits speak of the most refined Italian sartorial tradition, emblematic of a vision of the Italian ‘Latin Lover’ much indebted to Fellini’s masterpiece.
Federico Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita (1960) gave birth to a powerful trope signifying Italian style, fashion and glamour, recognized both in Italy and abroad. Especially in terms of menswear, the movie started a real revolution. Piero Gherardi, costume designer, set designer and art director of La Dolce Vita, chose for Marcello Mastroianni Brioni’s ‘Roman style’ suits, which he wore throughout the film. The brand, founded in Rome in 1945 by tailor Nazareno Fonticoli and businessman Gaetano Savini, received greater exposure thanks to the incredible success of the movie and became known as the epitome of Italian sartorial elegance. As opposed to the Savile Row’s ‘boxy, almost military suits of stiff lines and finite palette of materials, colors and details’, Brioni put forward a form-fitting style of suits for men: ‘elegant, impeccably made, and undeniably formal’, but also relaxed and unpretentious.
This was the starting point of a different image of masculinity, one that moved past Flügel’s idea of ‘Great Masculine Renunciation,’ in which – since the end of the eighteenth century –men had abandoned their beauty in favour of being ‘only useful’. The character of Marcello Rubini, a socialite journalist part of the Roman elite made of Hollywood stars like Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), and incredibly wealthy youth like Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), became the symbol of this revolution, reclaiming menswear’s right to draw attention to itself. Fellini played a crucial role in the establishment of this attire, and it is not a coincidence that in his three movies starring Mastroianni – La Dolce Vita (1960), 8½ (1963) and City of Women (1980) – the costumes worn by the Italian actor are variations of the classic male suit. The cynical journalist Marcello Rubini, the indecisive director Guido Anselmi and the middle-aged businessman Snàporaz, all equally tormented by feminine figures who seem to dominate their universe, can be seen sporting the dark suit – completed with a white or striped shirt, and a dark tie – and the almost inevitable pair of dark glasses. These elements transformed Mastroianni into ‘the man everybody wanted to be, or be with,’ a model of consumption for a consumer society, whether European or American, and the embodiment of the Italian ‘Latin Lover.’
Today, the symbol of the suit has become an integral part of Italian culture and style, and the character of Marcello still echoes in modern productions, such as Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning film La Grande Bellezza (2013). Jep Gambardella, the protagonist of the movie, seems to be shaped as an older version of Marcello Rubini: same profession, same social milieu, and above all the same sense of fashion. There are some almost identical outfits worn at similar occasions, such as the black suit and tie as everyday uniform, and the impeccable white suit they both sport at the beach – or near it, in the case of Jep. The white suit – an equally iconic style that continues to appear in menswear collections – was symptomatic of the introduction of colour that characterized the new style created by Brioni, which also presented red as one of the colours of men’s eveningwear.
All these elements were translated in the style of Jep, whose outfits included red and yellow sport jackets matched with white cotton trousers and shirts, worn without ties for a more relaxed look. Behind Jep’s impeccable image stands another historical sartoria, Cesare Attolini of Naples, birthplace of Sorrentino, Servillo and the character of Jep, too. One of the oldest and finest sartorie in Naples, Attolini created a series of bespoke suits with the help of Servillo himself and costume designer Daniela Ciancio, who decided to mix them with more formal Armani suits. Jep’s tailor-made outfits seem to caress his body as he slowly and elegantly walks among the ‘great beauty’ of Rome, constituting a ‘soft armour’ and ‘his shield against the ugliness and vulgarity of the world.’ They are as eccentric and dandyish as Gambardella himself, in a way that perfectly matches his tenor of life. In fact, by alternating scenes of ‘high life,’ be it the extravagant parties on Jep’s terrace or his night-time walks around the city’s splendid streets, Sorrentino represented a sense of wealth, both cultural and economical, that often degenerates into pure excess.
The emphasis on the artisanal, made-by-hand and luxury aspect of the ‘Made in Italy,’ represented by Attolini’s suits for La Grande Bellezza, as well as Brioni’s in La Dolce Vita, reflects a globally defining mark of Italian style that especially characterises men’s sartorial elegance. These suits present a specific economic and cultural value which identifies the men who wear them with a certain type of masculinity not predetermined but rather culturally and publicly sustained. Worn and afforded only by certain individuals, socialites and trendsetters, they become emblems of a lascivious lifestyle that characterised, and still characterises, the model of the ‘Latin Lover,’ presented on screen through the figures of Marcello Rubini and Jep Gambardella.
By Simona Mezzina
Flügel, J. C. The Psychology of Clothes. London: Hogarth Press & the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1940.
Hochkofler, Matilde. Marcello Mastroianni: the fun of cinema. Translated by Jocelyn Earle. Rome: Gremese International, 1992.
Levy, Shawn. Dolce Vita Confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome. London: Hachette UK, 2016.
Paulicelli, Eugenia. Italian Style: Fashion & Film from Early Cinema to the Digital Age. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.
Reich, Jacqueline. Beyond the Latin lover: Marcello Mastroianni, masculinity, and Italian cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.
8½ (Federico Fellini, Italy, 1963).
City of Women (Federico Fellini, Italy, 1980).
La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, Italy, 1960).
La Grande Bellezza (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy, 2013).
The burn out from sitting at the same desk for weeks on end is starting to get to me. Starved of external stimuli, I’ve found myself scrolling through Pinterest, Instagram, even Tumblr, for images which might evoke a sense of life before lockdown. In my search for inspiration, I keep coming back to the work of Grace Coddington. The iconic stylist known for her collaborations with Bruce Weber, Annie Leibowitz and Mario Testino amongst others, she is hailed by many as the most influential fashion editor of the past forty years. Her eclectic repertoire, from moody to ethereal to romantic to noir, provides an endless source of uplifting imagery. Over the past few weeks, I have found myself pondering what makes her images so unique, and indeed so ‘Grace’.
In her memoire, Grace reflects, ‘For me, one of the most important aspects of my work is to give people something to dream about, just as I used to dream all those years ago as a child looking at beautiful photographs.’ As Fashion Director of British Vogue and, later, as Creative Director of American Vogue, she masterminded page after page of dream-like editorial. Naomi Campbell in a white convertible surrounded by a pack of dalmatians. Natalia Vodianova as Alice in Wonderland flanked by John Galliano as the Red Queen and Stephen Jones as the Mad Hatter. Keira Knightly bottle feeding an elephant in Kenya in Comme des Garçons. All these images are rooted in the same desire to create a world which readers can escape to and momentarily revel in the beauty of the impossible.
Grace is thought of by many as a romantic heroine who premises her work solely on her vision of beauty as opposed to commercial ideals. In the 2009 documentary The September Issue, we see her grappling with Anna Wintour over budget and advertising constraints, adamantly defending her twenty-two-page spread ‘Paris, je t’aime’. When she arrives at the Palace of Versailles to shoot the September 2007 couture story, she becomes tearful when confronted by the beauty of the gardens and reflects ‘I think I got left behind somewhere as I’m still a romantic.’ For me, this moment perfectly encapsulates the essence of Grace, and her authentic approach to fashion. In the midst of an increasingly commercialised industry, her images have a sense of purity and fullness, and it is as if she is seeing everything for the first time.
Despite her reputation as one of the bastions of the fashion industry, Grace has always professed to disliking trends. In weaving her own narrative out of the latest looks, she creates a timeless vision which immunises the clothes from the ravages of time. In American Vogue’s September 2007 issue, she styled Fall/Winter Giorgio Armani and Carolina Herrera in the style of Brassai’s 1920s photographs of Paris. In the magazine’s December 2013 cover story, she styled Jessica Chastain in Alexander McQueen posing as Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 painting La Mousmé. In the December 1996 fashion feature, ‘A Feast For the Eyes’, nine supermodels are presented in Christian Lacroix Haute Couture, having a picnic in the park.
In her images, Grace creates stories and characters around the clothes, and in doing so she makes fashion secondary to beauty. This gives her work an enduring quality, and her images remain as magical now as when they were first created.