I love packing for my summer holidays. I realise that may seem an odd, even slightly masochistic statement. But no, for me, packing is a pleasure – it taps into my innate enjoyment of organization and neatness – and more than that, it allows me to combine my research into fashion history with my lived experience of dress. My fascination with American sportswear from the 1930s-50s, and special interest in designers Vera Maxwell and Claire McCardell can be given full reign, as I pursue the perfect travel wardrobe.
While fashion magazines are now full of stories on ‘capsule wardrobes’ and articles on how to dress for every possible travel destination, in the 1930s, this was a newly emerging trend. Maxwell and McCardell helped to define this idea of a small, well-curated selection of separates that could be mixed-and-matched for the duration of the holiday. Developments in diverse areas, including, ready-to-wear manufacturing, advances in dying various fabrics the same colour and the growth of travel as a leisure activity – think cruise ships and new airlines – meant the coordinated capsule wardrobe was the rational and modern way to approach dressing.
By the late 1930s, McCardell was making five or seven piece collections of clothes that addressed women’s lifestyle needs – whether travelling for business or pleasure. Lightweight chambray in an easy dress, shorts, jacket and sun top, for example could be taken for a short beach holiday. Or a navy-based wardrobe of jacket, skirt, trousers, culottes and knitted top might be good for a business trip.
What mattered was the sense of ease and appropriateness – these designers were professional women themselves, they understood the demands of modern life and saw their task as problem-solving – making their customers’ choices more straightforward, allowing them to carry minimum luggage, while being assured of their fashionable status.
But their designs are not just logical, cold answers to a fashion question. Their love of fabric and detail, focus on clear silhouettes and variety-through-combination make them fascinating pieces of modern design. And fashion photography of the time, by Louise Dahl-Wolfe for example, emphasized the sense of happiness and ease their work promoted.
So when you pack your suitcase this summer, think of these pioneers of travel fashions, and enjoy the pleasures of simple, modern classics.
Whilst back in Belgium I thought to myself, why not ask my dear friend – and fellow Art History student from the University of Leuven – about her views on style, femininity and the key to feeling confident.
Can you tell me what you are wearing today?
I am wearing some classic pieces, such as my favourite suede platform espadrilles, oversized comfy trench coat and silk transparent blouse. I think that together with my neoprene rucksack and sporty bomber jacket, the outfit evades pure minimalism and becomes more edgy. I didn’t realise this before but I think H&M should hire me as their walking-ad-campaign as I am dressed from head-to-toe in the Swedish label.
How would you describe your style?
I mostly wear muted shades like black, beige and grey and I try to express my creativity and personality by opting for unconventional materials. My budget is limited, so I often find myself browsing through sample-sales for special fabrics – by Pelican Avenue or Stephan Schneider – that I then use as scarves or bandanas. My style is all about mixing silk with mohair, leather with velvet, and neoprene with cashmere. It remains quite subtle I think.
What are the criteria to feel confident about the way you look?
I would say “my smile”, which is preferably with lipstick. I hate to admit it but I hardly ever leave the house without any make-up. In my teenage years, I used it to cover-up bad skin, but now it has become a way to express myself. I always match my make-up with my outfit and mood, and I am hooked on eye shadow. On a more practical level… I love watches and have dozens of them. I have to set the time at least ten minutes early as I am always quite late.
Has your dissertation on contemporary Japanese designers influenced your style in any way?
You wouldn’t ever catch me wearing sexy bodycon dresses, short skirts or low necklines. After focusing on the Japanese designers and their take on the image of women, I refuse to follow the traditional Western vision of female sexuality. This is not always easy. It might seem silly, but now I tend to let my trench hang nonchalantly instead of belting it to emphasise my waist. I prefer to express my femininity with lipstick!
Which items are on your summer wishlist?
I definitely want a sun visor to wear during my holiday in the South of France. I don’t enjoy tanning too much so I’ll try to fashionably hide away from the sun. I also really want a Dalmatian puppy to accompany my outfits!
Three woven fragments, each composed of similar red and gold threads in a design of kufic or pseudo-kufic characters, seemingly formed a complete textile at one time. Today, labelled and sewn side-by-side onto linen matting, with no documentation in reference to their creation, they serve as uncertain evidence. They also speak to the historian’s urge to retain, to classify, to learn, as well as to shifts in dress and art history.
The fragments form part of a larger collection of diverse textile and dress articles, held at The Courtauld. As students, we eagerly await opportunities to study historical textiles, such as these, up close, and it is wonderful to have a collection to work with on site. Recently, as well as looking at the textile fragments, such as those pictured, I viewed a late nineteenth-century bodice – one of the few complete pieces of clothing we have in the collection. Deconstructed and decontextualised from its life as a worn garment, it now evokes bodily and other types of loss. The poignancy of such interactions is heightened as, through contact with the object, we connect to distant periods and places. Our viewing experience thus works on a separate level to our theoretical and contextual readings of dress, that form much of our research. While our tutor, Rebecca and I discussed the bodice, other students marvelled at the detailed, sculptural qualities of a stomacher from the seventeenth to the early eighteenth century. These objects at once evoke the visual culture of the period in which they were made, yet remain shrouded in mystery.
Intriguingly little is known about the collection’s provenance. An anonymous brochure, entitled, A Collection of Textiles: European 14th – 18th Centuries, explains that it was created by Lionel Harris, a dealer of Spanish art and antiques and founder of London’s Spanish Art Gallery, largely on his travels to Spain between 1876 and 1938, and provides a few clues to its content:
This collection of four hundred and sixty-six rare examples of woven and embroidered materials forms what is probably the most comprehensive collection of antique European textiles in private possession. It comprises several hundred fragmentary specimens of tapestries, carpets, needlework, embroideries, velvets, brocades, brocatelles, damasks, woolwork, and other woven fabrics. In addition there are more than four hundred silk and metal fringes, gimps, galoons, and metal laces, and forty tassels.
The brochure, which purportedly corresponds to an exhibition of the collection at Eton College in 1944, one year after Harris’ death, evinces period prioritisation in favour of quantity, connoisseurship and typology.
Information concerning the Harris’ collecting is as ambiguous as the objects themselves. In her 1987 collection assessment report, textile conservation student Caroline Pilkington surmised that Lionel’s son Tomas, who inherited the collection, “added to it as well as dispos[ed] of certain items.” At some point before his death in 1964, he gave it to The Courtauld on long-term loan. In 1968, according to Pilkington, The Courtauld Gallery exhibited fifty-four textiles from the collection with the help of Joan Allgrove, then Keeper of Textiles at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. Harris’ siblings, who were also dealers, collectors and historians of Spanish art, then officially donated the collection to the school in 1972.
In parallel with this, in 1965, Stella Mary Newton, a well-known fashion and theatre costume designer, established the The Courtauld’s History of Dress postgraduate course. Between 1973 and 1975 Newton and her students sewed the Harris collection fragments, originally mounted on cardboard with tape and other adhesives, onto linen supports. This followed a shift in focus towards scholarship and protection, and away from antiquarian collecting.
In 1986, Newton’s successor, Aileen Ribeiro asked Pilkington, assisted by a textile conservation student, to organise the collection and store it in acid-free paper. In her report, Pilkington described how she categorised the articles first by textile type, followed by pattern and rough dates. The report expressed a hesitancy to attribute facts, perhaps in recognition of the need for accurate scholarship to legitimise the field. She made note of omissions and possible errors, and regretted that “there was no time left for any research on the actual textiles or weaving techniques. It is to be hoped that this may be tackled in the future.”
What we have then is a tantalising collation of information and facts, from which to begin further exploration. We must begin however, with the object, as my recent visit made clear. In view of the fiftieth anniversary of the dress history course in 2015, it is fitting that Rebecca Arnold would now like raise funding to develop the Harris textiles into a valuable study collection that can be easily accessed by students. In its new form, the primacy of analysis and meaning over quantity would reflect a new phase in dress scholarship.
What are you wearing today?
Yohji Yamamoto coat and trousers, a black Comme des Garçons t-shirt, a white Ann Demeulemeester shirt, and black Converse. Most of my wardrobe is Yohji Yamamoto, when I first tried it on, it just felt right. Like Wim Wenders says in his documentary, it’s as if he knew me. His clothes always feel comfortably worn-in, because when he designs he says that he wishes he could use fabric that was already ten years old. This means that his clothes age well, and you can buy good second-hand Yohji on the internet that still looks contemporary because he doesn’t change his line drastically from season to season.
Tell me about your jewellery?
My bracelet and skull ring are Werkstatt Munchen. The oxidised band was made for me by a friend, and I bought the agate ring in Damascus. I wear the same jewellery every day. I just got my ears pierced, so I’m on the look-out for interesting earrings.
Have you always dressed like this?
No, in the academic year of 2009/10 I used to dress crazily with lots of colour and print. I had a three-piece suit, bow-tie and pocket square. The Courtauld is a good place to dress like that because no one bats an eye-lid. Then I got ill and was away from the Courtauld for a few years. By the time I returned, I had sold everything in my wardrobe and started from scratch, because the way I was dressing and the way I wanted to dress were so different. People used to see the clothes, not me. So I stopped dressing in front of a mirror and started to wear a personal uniform. If I’m wearing all black then people think I’m wearing the same thing, but only I know about the differences in cut, proportion and line.
Can you tell me why you don’t dress before a mirror?
The way I dress is less about looking a certain way; it’s about feeling a certain way. I wanted to learn why I dress in a certain way, and it had to be a personal journey. How can you begin to understand why other people dress the way they do if you don’t understand your own choices? In one History of Dress class, Rebecca (Arnold) advised everyone to try on a corset to see how it felt. I was the only man in the class. She looked at me and said: ‘Yes, including you Syed’. I’m not a cross-dresser, but I’ve tried on a corset and a full-length gown. Womenswear is a completely different way of interacting with the world. How can you understand it if you don’t try it?
How do you store and document your clothes?
I can fit my wardrobe into a suitcase. It’s very small because I’m learning from the ground up. I never keep anything that I don’t wear, but I do keep photographs of everything I’ve bought, sold or given away. The one item I have for sentimental reasons is a tiny red sweater with ‘cheeky monkey’ on the front with a label that says ‘three to six months’. My family had very little money then, and there are no photos of me from that age, so that sweater is an important memory, it keeps me grounded.
Any other wardrobe secrets?
(Pulls out a bright Liberty-print handkerchief) I end up giving these away. When I see someone crying, which is common around exam and dissertation time, I hand them one and then through sniffles they promise to give it back to me, but I let them keep it.
The Red Hat Society (RHS) is a social organization originally founded in 1998 in the United States for women aged 50 and beyond, but is now open to women of all ages. As of 2011, there are over 40 000 chapters in the United States and other countries. I had the opportunity to meet a lovely group of ladies from the RHS. The group had travelled from Essex to Somerset House, to see the Isabella Blow exhibition that finished in March 2014. Known as the red ‘hatters’ the ladies often have tea parties and their Queen, Phoenix Fillies, confirmed a taste for the eccentric. The founding hatter, artist Sue Ellen Cooper, initiated the RHS by quoting Jenny Joseph’s poem ‘Warning,’ noting:
“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.”
There was something of the absurd, yet subtly brilliant, about the women’s appearance. Whilst they stood out as a group in Somerset House, each had adapted the colour combination of red and purple to create a range of interesting details that oscillated between being quite old fashioned and extremely modern, with details such as a tight seam or white tights set against red lipstick and red nails.
Each woman clearly took pride in their appearance and in belonging to the group. Their ‘Queen’, Phoenix Fillies, was forthcoming about the aims and benefits of the Red Hat Society. Their sense of belonging through colour invoked Jenifer Craik’s research on uniforms and can also be seen to relate to colour theory, demonstrating an outfit choice that resists insecurity and invisibility as older women. Pamela Church Gibson explores the disappointing tendency to become invisible as women get older. As opposed to an invisibility cloak, the red and purple clothes became the insignia of pride and presence. Visibly travelling around and enjoying interesting cultural days out, each woman took a deep-seated pride in her appearance. It was a pleasure to catch them on camera.
Craik, J. (1994) The Face of Fashion: cultural studies in fashion. London and New York: Routledge.
Church Gibson, P. (2000) ‘No one expects me anywhere’: invisible women, ageing and the fashion industry. Fashion Cultures: theories, explorations and analysis, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 79-90.
Although summer is well under way, a few of us are already thinking several seasons ahead. Our department has been asked to contribute to Somerset House’s Winter Festival exhibition, which will feature a series of small displays on the theme of winter and fashion. Due to run from December 2014 – February 2015, this promises to be an exciting project and we are delighted to be involved.
Using our Dress History Collections, we have decided to focus on showcasing fashion magazines from the 1910s and 1920s. The imagery in publications, such as the Gazette du Bon Ton and the Journal des Dames et des Modes, built on women’s everyday experience, while simultaneously inviting them to enter a realm outside of the quotidian through lush depictions of fashion.
Our display will explore the dichotomy of function versus fantasy, through the journals’ illustrations of winter clothing and activities. So far, we are in the initial planning stages of the project, but we will update you with the progress we make on a regular basis. Keep your eyes peeled for some magnificent illustrations from the likes of Iribe and Thayaht!
“The clothes I wore were practical for me and that is the reason I wore them,” explained ragtime social dancer Irene Castle in her memoir and autobiography Castles in the Air. An icon of the Progressive Era, Irene is remembered primarily for her energetic yet graceful steps, which she performed alongside husband and dance partner Vernon. Their work contributed to the rise of the exhibition ballroom dance craze across America, Britain, and France during the 1910s. However, reading her autobiography revealed that, in addition to her role in dance, Irene also introduced significant clothing innovations with her signature flowing silk chiffon gown (seen in this video). Her detailed and expressive writing about dress also suggested that her interest in fashion equalled or even surpassed her love of modern social dancing. Through a closer look at Castles in the Air, we see how autobiography became a tool for documenting Irene Castle’s fashion, and, perhaps more significantly, we gain an understanding of how dress might offer insight into the dancer’s life and identity.
At the beginning of their career, Irene and Vernon struggled financially and, during their debut performance at the Café de Paris – “the finest supper club in Paris” – Irene wore her white crepe de Chine wedding dress, as it was the only evening gown in her possession. Such biographic details allow readers to visualise how the Castles’ rose from meagre middle-class beginnings to deliver a breakthrough performance that ultimately launched their dancing career. Yet, despite the imminent success that awaited her, that evening Irene recalled feeling “out of place… in a room where any woman was wearing a quarter of a million dollars in jewelry”. This more personal rumination demonstrated how Irene initially viewed fashion as a symbol of status and wealth, an aspirational fantasy that, according to theatre historian Marlis Schweitzer, many middle- and working-class women shared during the Progressive Era as the rise of the department store and live mannequin parade made fashionable goods more visible and accessible to a wider group.
After the Café de Paris, the Castles’ numerous appearances in nightclubs, theatrical productions, and films greatly increased the couple’s fame, but Irene continued to wear her iconic chiffon dance frocks, despite the reigning popular fashion for the narrow hobble skirt, favoured by designers such as Paul Poiret. By the summer of 1913, as exhibition ballroom dance became the popular choice in evening entertainment in the urban centres of New York, London, and Paris, the dancer remembered that her “Castle frock [simultaneously] became the vogue” in dress among prominent society women and middle-class working girls who aspired to be modern and fashionable. These comments alluded to the idea that Irene’s dress was imitated internationally. However, despite her role as a fashion icon, the dancer insisted: “I had no idea of influencing anybody else’s fashions when I changed my own clothes… I could not dance in a hobble skirt…, therefore I wore simple flowing gowns that would leave my legs free.” This statement suggested that Irene aimed primarily to fashion herself in her own image, aligning herself with other Progressive Era women who gained independence and freedom of expression from the suffrage movement and growing female educational opportunities.
It is my hope that this brief examination of Castles in the Air will offer insight into Irene Castle’s personal relationship with fashion and lead to a broader understanding of how autobiography can be a useful tool for studying dress history.
The representation of fashion in the 2013 film adaptation of the novel The Great Gatsby, directed by Baz Lurhmann, has raised a number of significant questions with regard to both its role in the portrayal of key notions of femininity and fantasy, but also the tense relationship between the past in which the film is set and the present in which we view and interpret it. In her first scene, the character of Daisy Buchanan, played by Carey Mulligan, wears a cream sleeveless dress consisting of a structured lace bodice and full skirt of organza ‘petals’, cinched at the waist by a flowing beige tulle sash. Daisy’s portrayal of femininity, however, assumes a complex and problematic nature due to its play with the familiar binaries of feminine representation. The delicate elegance of her dress contributes to an ideal, or even potentially overly idealised, image of purity and incorruptibility yet its form-revealing bodice, fleshy tones and transparent panel are highly suggestive of a corporeal sensuality that does not correspond so comfortably with this ideal. The viewer is invited to realise Gatsby’s sexual attraction to Daisy while, simultaneously, fully comprehending her prevailing untouchable nature. Aesthetically, her presentation is undoubtedly beautiful, impeccably and ethereally so. Yet through an emphasis on a dreamlike fantasy of exaggerated femininity, the portrayal of her character is weakened and the audience’s view of her on the whole becomes, much like Nick and Gatsby’s in the narrative, characterised by a certain distance.
Conversely, the viewer’s introduction to the character of Tom Buchanan’s mistress Myrtle Wilson, played by Isla Fisher, is defined by a heightened fantasy of blatant and unashamedly erotically suggestive imagery, as she appears in her husband’s garage in a blur of glossy Bakelite bangles, heavy make-up, brightly coloured prints and fishnet stockings. Although the most significant and obvious function of this depiction is to offer further juxtaposition of the figures of devoted wife and wanton mistress, the viewer’s sensory perception of each operates very differently. Every element of Myrtle’s physical appearance, from her red lipstick to the vivid clash of green headscarf against tight, red curls of hair, visually magnifies her sexuality to the point that it begins to border on clichéd fantasy and even caricature. We can see how the fabric of her dress clings to and reveals her physical form, and a mass of red ruffles draws the eye towards a historically anachronistic display of cleavage. The notion of touch is only a secondary consideration in this instance since the flat, graphic lines of the dress and texture, which is suggestive of a cheap synthetic quality, is offset by the plastic sheen of her stacks of smooth, thick bangles.
By contrast, throughout the course of the film the presentation of Daisy’s dress is dominated by an engagement with touch, from her variously embellished dresses to the juxtaposition of a luxuriously soft fur coat and intricately textured lace dress, which are worn in the final scene. The use of conventionally feminine colours, such as cream, pale pastel and shades of gold, displace the sensual emphasis of sight and transfers it to touch, by allowing the muted hues to provide a foil for the textured fabrics, iridescent pearls and hard glitter of diamonds. These present an overall and lasting impression of luminous wealth and decadence rather than, as in Myrtle’s case, sexual availability and immediate sensual gratification.
The film’s emphasis on fashion, hairstyles and visual display can be considered an essential factor in the film’s overall audience appeal. The decorative excess of these visual codes, however, is also necessary in the formation of a feminized world in which extravagant and exciting performance predominates, thus creating a pleasingly disordered synthesis of historically conflicting styles and influences – all wholly appropriate, of course, to the original novel’s privileging of desire and escapism.
On 11 April 2014 I presented a paper at ‘Couture, Fashion and Consumption: Britain/France, 1947-1957’ held at Paris’ Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent (CNRS). This was the latest study day in the ongoing cross-cultural collaboration between dress history researchers from the IHTP and the University of Brighton. The following extract is the introduction to my paper, entitled, “Bravo la confection française! Researching French Ready-to-wear, 1947-1957: Industry, Modernity, and the Image of Women.”
In the 1 October 1956 issue of Elle, fashion editor Claude Brouet wrote: “Bravo la confection française! The bet is won. Won by the young industrialists of ‘Prêt à Porter’ who rescued French confection from its routine.” The accompanying photograph presented a model who wore a gray-brown wool coat by Albert Lempereur, an important proponent of ready-to-wear and then president of its trade organisation, the Fédération Française des Industries du Vêtement Féminin. The model followed the speed and direction of modernity, evoked by blurred horizontal lines that represented the frenzied mass-populatedcity of Paris. With her legs cropped out of the photo frame, the reader could not tell if she was caught in mid-step, moving with the times, or caught off-guard, slowing down in fear. The image captured well the electric push to modernise both industry and city and presented fashion that would parallel it. However, in contrasting sharp focus, the model seemed to exist outside of modern time. Rather than resist its thrust, uncertain, she questioned the move forward. Her stance could be seen to reflect France’s contradictory reception of its abrupt post-war modernisation, which, as Kristin Ross noted, was “experienced for the most part as highly destructive, obliterating a well-developed artisanal culture.” Prêt-à-porter, a product of the industry that perturbed mainstream notions of French artisanal production, was directly implicated in the country’s reconstruction. Articles in the fashion press, such as this one, which insisted on the success of French confection, thus sought to combat those views against modernity, but simultaneously laid bare a host of contradictions through their visual hesitancy and contrivance.
The French ready-made clothing industry during the Fourth Republic developed against the backdrop of heightened modernisation in terms of industrialisation, women’s lives, and France’s physical landscape, characterised by large-scale urbanisation. Images in the fashion press used ‘blurred’ photographic techniques, such as these, to depict the changing city that, from the 1950s was characterised by a new energy after its occupation during the war. The growth of mass motorised transport from the late 1950s, largely out of sight during the war and in the years following it, was a tangible reminder of urbanity. Such photographs “that achieve a truly dynamic movement,” as Christine Moneera Laennec has argued in relation to 1930s fashion photography, “work in such a way as to evoke various mechanized processes, not the least of which was the mass production that by this time had become central to the fashion industry.” Clothing and women were conflated with the automobile, the period symbol for urban, speedy modernity and the consumer object that most clearly referenced industrialised assembly-line production; which the repetitive imagery of models visualised. Certainly, the magazine’s distinctive use of highly saturated colour photography had as much to do with Roland Barthes’ characterisation of Elle as “a real mythological treasure” as the subjects it portrayed so that dressed bodies became shiny, streamlined, “magical” goods.
Women in this decade were also objectified through their clothing, with, according to Rebecca Arnold, “focus placed on a hard body created by corsetry and shiny dress fabrics that suggested a metallic finish and touch.” A dress sold at the fashionable boutique, Claude Mérel, with its crisp synthetic material veiled under a printed pattern of flowers, intimated painterly, handcrafted creation. Similarly, the boutique’s label hid any trace of a manufacturer. The dress implied a lavish, historic femininity with its voluminous skirt and large collar, which, in contrast, recalled men’s suits and workwear. Freedom of movement to work however, was repressed and contained through the dress’s construction: besides a small zipper at its side waist, the garment had no opening and included a belt for the body’s further containment. Magazines’new construction of fashion and femininity, as seen above, negotiated components of industrial modernity and disseminated them in relation to prêt-à-porter and the image of women. Yet, as suggested by the Claude Mérel dress, postwar femininity was a site of contradiction, comprising a mixture of identities. This paper asks how the history of postwar French ready-to-wear can shed light on several contradictory narratives and, therefore, the transitional, dual nature of the 1950s, a period that encompassed limitations and possibility, modernity and tradition, flux and stasis.
Arnold, R. (2013) “Wifedressing: designing femininity in 1950s American fashion,” in Adamson, G. and Kelley, V. eds., Surface Tensions: Surface, Finish and the Meaning of Objects, Manchester: Manchester University, p. 127.
Barthes, R. (2009 ) Mythologies, London: Vintage Books, pp. 89, 101-103.
Laennec, C. M. (1997) “‘The Assembly-Line Love Goddess’: Women and the Machine Aesthetic in Fashion Photography, 1918-1940,” in Wilson, D. S. and Laennec, C. M., eds., Bodily Discursions: Genders, Representations, Technologies, Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York, p. 89.
Ross, K. (1995) Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture, Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT, p. 22.