In 1923, the Gazette du Bon Ton employed what they termed a ‘Professor of
Colourism’ to provide advice for an article entitled ‘Dangerous and Virtuous Colours’.
Set upon a solid background of vivid, mustard yellow, the text and accompanying line
drawing, both printed in strong black, create a stark contrast, and subsequently
jarring visual sensation for the reader. Could this uncomfortable viewing be an
example of the danger of colour referred to by the article? Can colour perform an
assault on the senses in this way? If this explains the Gazette du Bon Ton’s
reference to danger, what, then, associates colour with the journal’s second
description, of ‘virtuous’? Such ideas on colour were not obscure, and in fact
appeared over a range of contemporary media, particularly the fashion press. Two
years later, in 1925, for example, Vogue mused that ‘there is… a touch of the
soldier’s swagger… of flaunting danger… in red hats.’ It proposed, then, that colours
have an ability to project characteristics. In this case, the characteristics were
associated with military violence, closely connected to the recent experience of the
First World War.
The aftermath of the war had a huge impact on the advertising of skincare products.
In the immediate post-war years, beauty advertisements engaged with women’s
wartime experiences, appealing to notions of wounds and trauma on a psychological
level. They presented the enticing image of peaceful care, healing and wholeness,
taking direct visual inspiration from new developments in medicine. However, this
caring image of comfort soon placed women in potentially threatening situations, and
a new, medicalised and violent aesthetic, which I term ‘beauty doctoring’, both
appealed to, and exploited, women’s war-invoked vulnerabilities.
In the years following, the impact of violence upon beauty advertising did not
diminish. References to colour and its potential dissonant danger appeared
frequently, particularly from the mid-1920s onwards, which coincided with
developments, and the increasing presence of colour, in beauty, fashion, and culture
– including publishing, photography, and film – alike. Women’s changing role amongst
this led to new methods of both their perception and self-agency, and within this,
colour played a crucial role.
Sources: Gazette du Bon Ton, No. 5, 1923.
US Vogue (1st March, 1925).
Renoir placed fashion at the heart of La Loge, which he painted in 1874. His representation of a fashionably dressed young coupleseated in a theatre box expressed the desire of the Impressionists to capture the beauty and excitement of modern life through a new language of painting. Thephysical transmutation of dress onto canvas shows thatfashion is both a vibrant form of visual and material culture and a major economic force, indicative of wider social and cultural meanings.
The woman in the foreground, who some critics have referred to as Nini, has an elusive sophistication that dominates the painting, reliant on her character and deportment as much as on her dress. Her pose, in which one hand is placed on her handkerchief by her left hip, whilst her figure is emphasised by expert corsetry and luxury fabrics, renders her every bit the fashion model. Nini’s face is executed in minute detail, her features carefully and delicately modelled in such a way that our eyes flicker between the bodice and her face in search for the principal focus of the composition.
Renoir expresses the sensual tactility of Nini’s overall appearance. Her silvery painted face and neck has a slightly blurred texture that complements the gauzy fabric of her dress. Her sparkling jewellery captures the viewer’s eye and evokes the visual and literal consumption so fundamental to fashion. Renoir produces a poetic interpretation of the more prosaic details of dress through delicate, softly brushed forms of varying colour and tones. His paint handling is varied and fluent. Forms are delicately rendered without crisp contours. Nini’s gown provides a strong monochrome and triangular underpinning to the composition. Black and blue paint are mixed to suggest a play of light and shade. Surrounding this focal point are varied nuances of blue, green and yellow, which recur in the white fabrics, acting as a counterpoint to the rosy warm hues of the woman’s flesh and the pinks and reds that form the flowers in her hair and on her bodice.
If we look at La Loge in close proximity, all that can be seen are brushstrokes. When viewed from a distance, however, the dress sits back to display the three-dimensional forms lying within its stripes. This interplay between the informal, sketch-like appearance of the paint and the extraordinary amount of detail conveyed in the painting can be read as a visual manifestation of fashion’s complex and dualistic nature. Likewise, fashion can have the intensity of the personal, expressing individual taste and emotion, yet the power and impact of the general, encouraging everyone to dress in a certain, often homogenous, way.
The French documentary filmmaker Chris Marker wrote of the women he photographed on his travels: ‘I stare at them, but not enough, not long enough’. Paraphrasing the poet Valery Larbaud he mused: ‘perhaps, if I could catch up with them [his female subjects]… perhaps I could conquer a world. Or rather they would conquer a world for me’. The first photographs in Marker’s ‘Staring Back’ series, which spanned six decades (c.1950s- 2000s), featured subjects of both sexes in a post-colonial Cold War world, one in which France’s grip on its colonies was continually challenged, and the balance of global power had shifted from Europe to the United States and the USSR.
Marker, a progressive left-wing intellectual was conscious that he did not want to replicate the conventions of colonial European photographers who shot their subjects from the position of perceived racial and intellectual superiority. His above comment, that no amount of staring was sufficient to fully grasp the character of the subject, is pertinent because it suggests that he relinquished the photographer’s traditional claim to mastery over the subject. In a photograph of Russian girls listening to poetry, made in the 1950s, Marker positions himself as a witness to their engrossment. The girls are shot side-on in soft focus with their eyes downcast. The edges of the auditorium seats around them are blurred so as to suggest that everything is touched by the poetry’s rhythm. The girls’ sweaters seem non-descript second skins and the highlights at the crown of their heads take on a dandelion texture, which gives the impression that they too dissolve into the verse’s cadences. The vagueness of the composition appeals to the spectator’s sense of ‘haptic visuality’ which, as the film theorist Laura U. Marks argues, acknowledges the limitations of visual knowledge and uses the ‘resources of memory and imagination to complete’ the image. Haptic images, Marks continues, ‘force the viewer to contemplate the image instead of being pulled into the narrative’. Thus, the vague apparitions in Marker’s image elude their exact location and ethnicity and instead evoke the immediate and universal act of listening. While Marker does not pretend to fully compass his Soviet subjects, his soft-focus treatment indicates his empathy with their poetic transportation.
Marker’s interest in his female subjects’ elusiveness forms the subject of his 1962 ciné-roman La Jetée, a film composed almost entirely of black and white still images, which centres on the protagonist’s obsession with the image of a woman from his childhood. Even after he enters the post-apocalyptic scenario of World War III, he greets her in parallel universes. Although the film is set in the future, the female protagonist played by Hélène Chatelain aspires to a 1960s French New Wave conception of timelessness. Styled in unadorned black and white shift dresses, her face free from obvious make-up and her shoulder-length blonde hair flyaway or in a statuesque high chignon, Chatelain recalls Jeanne Moreau in Francois Truffaut’s 1962 film Jules et Jim. In both films the heroine’s understated styling enables a focus on the corporeal essentials that define the hero’s relentless fixation: the smile, the hair and the hands flying up to frame her face. As Janet Harbord argues, the woman’s hands ‘do not so much obfuscate her expression as stand in the place of it, and mediate it’. The fleeting encounters of the man and woman in their post-apocalyptic worlds reach varying levels of communion, as the film shows how an encounter with a childhood vision can be richly experienced, but not fully achieved.
Marker’s post-war images of women express his extraordinary sensitivity to the tiniest mutations in the female face. However, in the course of this poetic journey, he also exposes the futility of the photographer’s quest to capture the true essence of his mutable subjects.
The first thing that strikes you is the sheer volume of fabric. Dove grey silk taffeta – and lots of it. Packed into a suitcase, this Charles James dress was a complete surprise. And a wonderful treat for my students and me!
But I’m running ahead of myself, I should backtrack and explain. A couple of weeks ago, out of the blue, I received an email from Niccola Shearman, a research student at The Courtauld. She had seen some quotes from me in an article on the current Charles James exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and wondered if I’d be interested to know that she had two James dresses.
You see, Niccola is James’ great niece, and she has inherited two precious reminders of his skill and creativity – the grey dress, which he made for her mother, Jane Smith’s 21st birthday party held at the Café de Paris in 1954, and a wedding dress. The latter is an especially intriguing piece of fashion history, originally designed by Charles Frederick Worth for James’ mother’s wedding in the 1880s, James later adapted it for his sister’s 1930s marriage, and then reworked it again, two decades later, for Niccola’s mother to wear, when she married John Shearman (one-time Deputy Director of The Courtauld).
Hearing this news was thrilling, and you can imagine our delight when Niccola arrived in my office with the grey dress, photographs of both gowns and fascinating stories about her family’s history. Born to an American mother and British father, James spent part of his life here in London. His obsessive approach to pattern cutting produced a series of extraordinary garments that were sculpted to the torso and engineered to spread out from the body in architectural folds.
Niccola’s mother’s dress bears these hallmarks. The bodice is constructed to fit like a second skin, mimicking mid-nineteenth century lines, it comes to a slight point at the centre of the waist. It has whale boning to make sure the fit is precise and that it stayed in place when worn. The sweetheart neckline is edged with self-coloured velvet ribbon, pleated to soften the line and flatter the skin with its textural contrast. The cap sleeves are pleated to make them curve out from the top of the arm to balance the overall silhouette. It is lined with palest peach-pink silk, that provides a secret complement – known only to the wearer – to the opalescent grey taffeta seen by onlookers.
And then there is the skirt. Pleated into the waistband – again an homage to the previous century – it stands out in deep folds from the fitted waist. The hem is held out by a wide band of woven horsehair that ensured the dress maintained its bell-shape swing throughout the party.
The dress therefore combines the fashionable 1950s style with its nostalgic references to Victorian femininity. And importantly, bears James’ signature in its attention to detail – it is hand stitched – his love of sculptural forms, created through clever construction techniques, and his fascination with lush silks and hidden contrasts.
It was wonderful to have the opportunity to examine the dress close up, and we are so grateful to Niccola for sharing this amazing piece of her family’s (and fashion’s) history with us.
On 9 April 2014, whilst on a research trip in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, I was invited by Professor Rita Andrade to give a paper at the Universidade Federal de Goiás, Brazil. This is a short extract from my paper, which examined National Geographic’s representation of Brazil through dress since the magazine celebrated its centennial in September 1988.
Reproduced within the centennial edition of National Geographic in September 1988 were all of the magazine covers published to date, on a 2-metre wide double-sided pull-out section. The thick glossy pages unfolded as far as the arms could stretch and played with the affective capacities of the beholder. To view the covers in their entirety, the beholder was required to hold the magazine in their hands and realign their body in relation to it: to press their chest forwards, to move their face closer to inspect the small printed details, to achieve a sensory relation with the textured surface and smell of the recently printed pages. This article will argue that the centennial edition of National Geographic was designed not merely to be read, but to be felt too. It initiated a shift, in which the magazine has sought to communicate with its readership not only in terms of linguistic signification or effect, but through the sensations, memories, emotions or affect that images of Brazilian dress have evoked in the National Geographic viewer.
Within the article the then editor of National Geographic, Wilber E. Garrett (1980-1990) commented (my italics): ‘Though I can’t relate to all of them, these covers mark a century of holding up to the world our uniquely objective publishing mirror’. He then asserted a point of departure from the magazine’s previous editorial objectives, by declaring the need for ‘a once-in-a-century bit of introspection – holding up the mirror to ourselves for a change… we’re looking ahead to the next 100 years.’ Representation does not simply mirror but actively constructs, manufacturing the objects of its gaze as much as registering them: it is in this sense that each photograph reproduced in National Geographic has necessarily extended, altered and distorted the metaphorical ‘mirror’ originally held up by the National Geographic photographer or National Geographic author to his or her subject.
An example can be seen in a photograph that appeared in a National Geographic article in December 1988 entitled ‘Last Days of Eden: Rondonia’s Urueu-Wau-Wau Indians’. It captured a young girl as she stared at her reflection in a shiny silver and green balloon which she held in her right hand, whilst she traced the contours of her face with her left hand. A caption underneath the photograph read: ‘Captivated by her own image, an Urueu-Wau-Wau girl studies a plaything from another world at an outpost of Funai, Brazil’s National Foundation for the Indian’. Materiality is central to a viewer’s visual interpretation of this image. Viewers have a heightened awareness of their own bodies as they sit in quiet contemplation of the magazine, which is held in their hands or perhaps rested on their lap, and flip through the smooth, silky pages – possibly even handing them to another family member or friend for consideration. This bodily engaged way of viewing images in National Geographic focuses the act of looking, and draws attention to the act of looking being performed by the subject of the photograph, who stares at her own reflection in the shiny surface of the balloon whilst stroking her cheek. This engenders a feeling of identification between viewer and subject, despite the disparities in geographical location and generational experience, through the viewer’s own heightened awareness of being-in-the-world. As Eugenie Shinkle has pointed out, ‘So-called “mirror neurons” in the brain fire not only when we perform a particular action ourselves, but when we witness someone else performing it.’ Shinkle has examined the process by which, when we look at the postures and gestures made by a body (in this case, the girl tracing her reflection on the skin of her face) we do not simply read it in terms of a represented body, but we map these postures and gestures onto our own body. National Geographic self-reflexively plays with the performative nature of image-making through the use of gesture, which produces a heightened awareness of the process of looking in the National Geographic viewer. The use of gesture invites empathy between subject and viewer on a bodily level, as the subject movements are synchronized with the viewer’s own physical, emotional and intellectual being.
Garrett, W. E. (1988) ‘Within the Yellow Border…’, National Geographic, 174:3, September,
McIntyre, L. (with photographs by W. Jesco von Puttkamer) (1988) ‘Last Days of Eden: Rondonia’s Urueu-Wau-Wau Indians’, National Geographic, 174:6, December, p. 804.
Shinkle, E. (2010) ‘The Line Between the Wall and the Floor: Reality and Affect in Contemporary Fashion Photography’, in Shinkle, ed., Fashion as Photograph: Viewing and Reviewing Images of Fashion, London and New York: I. B. Tauris, p. 220.
A small arrow links the fashion sketch with the words “Spanish Influence”. This sketch was made for Madge Garland, editor of British Vogue, during the presentation of the 1939 Winter Collections in Paris. Cristobal Balenciaga (1895-1972) christened the design the “Infanta” gown since he had been inspired by Diego Velázquez’s portrait Las Meninas (1656). In this painting, the five-year old Infanta of Spain, Margarita Teresa, wears a dress with a tight-fitting bodice and a wide skirt supported by a dome-shaped hooped petticoat. Balenciaga’s version, with its contrasting colours, resembles her gown and echoes the shape and formality of seventeenth-century court dress. The clever blending of elements of historical dress with contemporary shapes ensured that Balenciaga’s 1939 evening gown appealed to both the fashion press, which has an appetite for novelty and innovation, and his discerning clientele.
In 1939 fashion journalists proclaimed the “Infanta” gown a “remarkable” phenomenon. In such narratives it was the presumed Spanishness of the design, inextricably linked to Balenciaga’s heritage, which was heralded as innovative and “different”. For example, on 15 September 1939, an editorial in American Vogue read:
“Balenciaga borrows again from that earlier Spaniard – there’s a Velázquez look about this dress, which Miss Mona Maris wears like a sixteenth-century court beauty.”
Balenciaga had arrived in Paris in 1937, a period in which nationalism had become an important topic of debate for both European politics and Parisian couture. He presented the collection in 1939, the same year that the Spanish Civil War reached new heights of violence, which included the firebombing of his native region, the Basque. Balenciaga’s reference to Spanish art history was interpreted as a personal quest for cultural identity and a nostalgic longing for origins.
However, several other Parisian couturiers also dipped into art history for themes and motifs in 1939. In British Vogue, Garland linked this trend to the feeling of malaise just before the outbreak of the Second World War:
“In 1939, every irrelevant romantic image was invoked, from the paintings of Boucher and Watteau to the personalities of Queen Victoria and the Empress Eugénie. Corsetieres were called in to help construct the boned bodices of the new-old gowns.”
The silhouette of the Infanta dress was in line with the historicist theme acknowledged by Garland, but also with the small corseted waists and wide skirts in vogue in Parisian couture. Timing was crucial and the Infanta dress became inextricably linked to the wider debate on national identities. Interestingly, the use of seventeenth-century Spanish costume elements by Mainbocher, the House of Worth or Lanvin was not met with similar response.
The Infanta dress had been designed by a ‘real Spaniard’ and as result, it was interpreted as a manifestation of Balenciaga’s distinctive national identity and culture. Scholars and journalists appeared to understand Balenciaga’s new role as their tour guide to Spain. It is important to note that there were a variety of other design elements in Balenciaga’s work that revealed that Spanishness was not his sole defining trait as a designer. Nevertheless, it was this kind of exoticism that, in 1939, sparked interest among his clientele, and proved undoubtedly beneficial to the cultural and economic capital of an emerging designer in Paris.
Arzalluz, M. (2010) Cristóbal Balenciaga. The Making of a Master (1895-1936), London: V&A Publications.
Garland, M. (1968) The Indecisive Decade. The World of Fashion and Entertainment in the Thirties, London: Macdonald.
‘Fashion: Hoop-Skirts to Hobble-Skirts at the…Paris Openings’ (American Vogue, September 1939).
‘Fashion: Paris Openings – Variety Show’ (American Vogue, September 1939).
‘The Great Painters Colour Paris Fashion’ (American Vogue, September 1939).
Christine hails from the ‘shire’ of Los Angeles, California. She is an MA student at The Courtauld, specialising in early modern Netherlandish art, and she is currently writing her dissertation on alchemy in seventeenth-century Dutch painting.
Tell me about what you are wearing. I am wearing a Burberry trench and a vintage French 1940s jacket over a silky blouse, decorated with hot air balloons and a little pussy bow. I paired these with a simple pair of dark jeans and my Melissa The Little Prince shoes.
How would you describe your style? That’s a hard question because I can never actually figure out what my style is! I think my cousin once described it as twisted and whimsical yet sophisticated. I was not exactly sure what that meant back then, but I guess now that I have developed it, that sounds about right.
Where do you look for inspiration in how you dress? Being an art historian, I usually look at historical sources. I like to start with a theme. In the winter, for example, I am often in the mood for something Victorian, and I might dress as though I’m going hunting in the nineteenth century!
What do you think your look says about you? That I am rather eccentric.
Has being a MA student at The Courtauld influenced your fashion at all? If so, how? To be honest, unless I’m feeling good on a specific day, I often feel too stressed to dress up as often as I usually would.
Has your MA specialisation in Netherlandish art inspired your dress at all? Certainly! I always liked the seventeenth century, especially the costumes, so I like to have a lot of ruffled blouses, lace, and things like that.
What are your go-to shopping places in London? I go to a lot of sample sales. I did not realise that I would go to so many sample sales in London.
The popularity of the fashion exhibition has gained increasing momentum in recent years, transforming itself from selections of historical examples hidden in the darkened recesses of permanent collections, into a rapid succession of lucrative blockbuster temporary exhibitions highlighting contemporary trends and designers, which typically draw in millions of visitors each year. The complex reasons for this growing trend are the subject of much debate, but one thing remains certain: both the accessibility of fashion and its ever more assured cultural status only continues to grow.
Dries Van Noten: Inspirations is one such example of this recent international phenomenon, and is currently on show at the prestigious Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. However, this tribute to the Belgian avant-garde designer, whose distinctive combination of curiosity, humour and artistry has consistently challenged the creation and interpretation of fashion for more than two decades, is neither a retrospective nor a simple celebration of the clothes themselves. It is, rather unusually in the sphere of fashion exhibitions, a kaleidoscopic exploration of his extraordinarily vast range of inspirational sources, oscillating between music, film and art, historical textile samples and iconic figures of style, alongside examples of Van Noten’s own designs. Olivier Gabet, the Director of the Musée des Les Arts Décoratifs, has commented on this fresh and dynamic approach:
“In a world saturated with pictures, names and events, there are a thousand different ways to go about exhibiting fashion. Yet the singular dimension of a museum whittles this number down to just a few of any value…[Dries Van Noten] assumes that delicate balance which implies that a fashion exhibition is much more than just a show of objets de mode…instead offering that unique moment, that totally new experience of something completely new.”
Divided into themes ranging from ‘Uniform’ to ‘Francis Bacon’, each section of the exhibition focuses upon a specific aspect of Van Noten’s diverse and vibrant creative influences, be it a certain colour, culture or aspect of nature. The opening section, entitled ‘Punk’, immediately challenges and even overthrows the visitor’s expectations and interpretations of the theme by displaying not only predictable imagery, such as 1970s photographs of the Sex Pistols, but also incorporating an original ‘New Look’ ensemble from Christian Dior’s famous 1947 collection, among other seemingly anachronistic examples from art and fashion. Elsewhere, a section devoted entirely to the theme of Jane Campion’s 1993 film The Piano exhibits surviving examples of Victorian dress alongside Marcel Broodthaers’s 1965 sculpture of a pot of mussels.
Through this unconventional approach to fashion curation Dries Van Noten and curators at the Musée des Les Arts Décoratifs present an innovative new lens through which to consider the entire ‘process’ of fashion – from the very first flicker of inspiration, to the creation of a fully-fledged museum show. Intriguing juxtapositions between old and new, masculine and feminine, the decorative and the stripped back serve to highlight the designer’s characteristic tension between tradition and modernity, thus exposing the eclectic variety that, ultimately, lends Dries Van Noten’s work its singular richness and unique place within contemporary fashion.
‘Hints on Making an Evening Dress from a Morning Frock’ is an excerpt from the 1926 cinemagazine Hints and Hobbies. The series, produced by A. E. Coleby and S. Mumford, consisted of several instalments that supplied audiences with advice on matters that ranged from the usefulness of jiu-jitsu to optimal suggestions on restyling a hat in six different ways. As the subject matter indicates, this new genre of film was targeted at women who made up the majority of cinemagoers in the interwar period. As a key source of fashion information, cinemagazines, along with newsreels, Hollywood films and printed magazines, provided women with a treasure trove of contemporary styles from which they could select what suited their budgets and needs. Their miscellaneous advice therefore reflected the diversification of female lifestyles in the interwar period, which stimulated the need for an adaptable wardrobe suited to the pursuit of dynamic modern interests.
‘Hints on Making an Evening Dress from a Morning Frock’ is a Cinderella story tailored to contemporary needs and desires. The young girl is quickly transformed by her mother’s dexterous adjustments, presumably allowing her to go out for an evening of dancing, one of the most popular leisure activities in the 1920s. This fictional re-enactment of a scene gleaned from everyday life illustrates contemporary attitudes towards fashion and entertainment. Instead of framing fashion as a novelty attraction, the economic adaptability of current styles is emphasised. Accessories such as the lace, buckles and fake flowers that are added to the garment would have been available for purchase at department stores such as John Lewis or Whiteleys, which catered to home dressmakers. Through alterations of their existing clothing, working and lower middle-class women could participate in the collective process of fashion and express their individuality in creative ways.
The transformation of the dress also serves as a pretext to promote inter-generational female bonding. Cinemagazines frequently showed mothers and daughters collaborating on making objects for and in a domestic setting as a popular pastime. The mother’s active role in transforming her daughter for a night of dancing suggests her approval, and downplays the rebellious potential of a young woman wearing revealing evening attire in an unchaperoned social setting. ‘Hints on Making an Evening Dress from a Morning Frock’ illustrates how fashion and mass media are inextricably linked. While many assume that modern media promotes passive consumption of commodities and images, these examples demonstrate that they also have the potential to foster a creative involvement with fashion. Instead of simply providing a reflection of what fashions dominated the latter half of the 1920s, ‘Hints on Making an Evening Dress from a Morning Frock’ signals what it meant to be fashionable and how this could be achieved.
A row of ripe orange pineapples with green stalks, blossoms of fresh white orchids amid verdant foliage. A tranquil sunset of turquoise green, fuchsia pink and deep purple, a flock of yellow-beaked toucans, bright red parrots and lurid green macaws.
The collection references the vibrant colours and exuberance traditionally associated with Brazil while looking for affiliation with international fashion trends. It articulates some of the images of Rio constructed by the outside world – images that contribute to its enduring appeal as the ultimate exotic tourist destination.
One of the best ways of tracing how the international image of Brazil has developed is perhaps the popular journal National Geographic. Here it’s easy to see the effects of globalisation on how the rest of the world perceives Brazilian dress and of course, by extension, Brazilians.
National Geographic has positioned itself as a voice of authority on Brazil within mainstream American print media. It offers what purports to be an unprejudiced window onto the world.
But the magazine has a somewhat uneasy past, and is viewed critically by scholars because of this. Historically it has quite a reputation for its distinctive, quasi-anthropological outlook. Until relatively recently, it’s argued that its subjects were rendered into dehumanised objects, a spectacle of the unknown. In doing so the magazine pursued a kind of US-driven cultural imperialism
But a turn can be seen in the late 1980s. Pictures in National Geographic’s centenary edition in September 1988 trace the beginnings of a different view, driven by globalisation. We see white lace European-influenced dresses worn by followers of Candomble in Salvador da Bahia, colourful bikinis worn by bronzed women of all shapes and sizes on Copacabana beach and an increased adoption of sportswear brands by indigenous people living in remote areas of the Amazon.
These images have resisted the processes of objectification, appropriation and stereotyping frequently associated with the rectangular yellow border. This is because they provide evidence of a fluid population, a various one, rather than the one dimensional images of old. The people in these pictures have selected preferred elements of American and European culture and used it to fashion their Brazilian identities.
So National Geographic has transcended its own popular stereotypes by documenting an increasingly multilayered image of Brazil for an international readership, which since the launch of National Geographic Brasil in 2000 has also included Brazil.
This shift in the representation of Brazilian dress is mirrored in other international media. And Brazilian consumers have become more critical and demanding about fashion produced at home as they are continually exposed to international tastes and trends online.
Brazil used to be notorious for copying the prints, ideas, models and colours of European and American fashion design. In the 1920s and 1930s, Brazilian women used to go around wearing expensive furs in Rio and Sao Paulo, because that’s what glamorous European women wore. But since the early 1990s, designers such as Ronaldo Fraga, Isabela Capeto, Alexandre Herchcovitch and Lino Villaventura have produced work that draws inspiration from Brazilian style and culture – and suits the climate. Improved political stability and economic growth have provided the conditions for these designers to flourish, and achieve international recognition.
Trend forecasters at Adidas clearly predicted the endless opportunities and cultural capital provided by Rio de Janeiro, the Cidade Maravilhosa, with its rainforest-covered peaks, sparkling coastline and spectacular views. The city is expecting 600,000 foreign tourists during the World Cup, not to mention the Summer Olympic Games in 2016.
But Adidas is not merely cashing in. The collection promotes a new way to view Brazil, a far cry from Adidas’s other recent (hyper-sexualised) tropical foray. As one of the main sponsors for the World Cup, the brand released two t-shirt designs in February 2014. One depicted a dark-haired Brazilian woman on Copacabana beach, dressed in a tiny thong bikini under the heading “lookin’ to score”. The other announced “I love Brazil” – with an upside-down thong bikini encased within a heart.
Both of the designs were pulled from the brand’s online shop after vehement criticism from the Brazilian tourist board and Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, who tweeted: “Brazil is ready to fight sexual tourism.”
The Adidas Originals/FARM RIO collection bypasses such sexualised stereotypes of Brazil (perhaps under strict instruction from head office). Instead it highlights how multifaceted Brazilian culture is – always borrowing or mixing with outside influences to create something new, something distinctly Brazilian.
The collection has been flying off the racks. And who knows, perhaps we’ll soon spot it in the next National Geographic.
Elizabeth Kutesko does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.