Fashioning the Other? Globalization and the representation of Brazilian dress in National Geographic since 1988

8 copy
During the lecture with Rita Andrade, who helped with translation.
Untitled
The pull-out section of ‘Within the Yellow Border…’, National Geographic, September 1988.
photo-2
Image from ‘Last Days of Eden’, National Geographic, December 1988.

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.

Sources:
Garrett, W. E. (1988) ‘Within the Yellow Border…’, National Geographic, 174:3, September,
p. 270-286.

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.

Cristobal Balenciaga’s “Infanta” gown (1939): a story about origins?

PARIS1938_Balenciaga
Drawing made for Madge Garland, Winter Collections, Paris, 1939.
Courtauld History of Dress Collections.

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.

Sources:

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).

5 Minutes with… Christine Quach

Christine at Somerset House, outside of The Courtauld. All photos by Jennifer Potter.
Christine at Somerset House, outside of The Courtauld. All photos by Jennifer Potter.
Perfecting the art of layering.
Perfecting the art of layering.
Melissa The Little Prince shoes
Melissa The Little Prince shoes
“S’il vous plait… Dessine-moi un mouton…”
“S’il vous plait… Dessine-moi un mouton…”
Christine’s ruffled sleeve – inspired by her love of the seventeenth century!
Christine’s ruffled sleeve – inspired by her love of the seventeenth century!
Another vintage find!
Another vintage find!

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. 

A Collector of Thoughts: Review of ‘Dries Van Noten: Inspirations’

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.

‘Dries Van Noten: Inspirations’ will be held at Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris until 31st August, 2014. 

Source:

Bruloot, G. ed. (2014), Dries Van Noten, Tielt: Lannoo.

Hints, Hobbies and Definitions of 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.

See ‘Hints on Making an Evening Dress from a Morning Frock’ here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PXAFvOH3yg

Sources

Barnes, R., and Eicher, J. B., eds. (1993) Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning in Cultural Contexts, Oxford: Berg.

Buckley, V., and Fawcett, H. (2002) Fashioning the Feminine: Representation of Women’s Fashion from the Fin de Siecle to the Present, London: I.B. Tauris.

Hackney, F. (2006) ‘ Use Your Hands for Happiness ’: Home Craft and Make-do-and-Mend in British Women’s Magazines in the 1920s and 1930s,’ Journal of Design History Vol. 19 No. 1.

Hammerton, J. (2001) For Ladies Only? Eve’s Film Review: Pathe Cinemagazine 1921-33, Hastings: Projection Box.

Kuhn, A. (2002) An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory, London and New York: I.B. Tauris.

Adidas shows the changing face of Brazil with tropical collection

324390

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.

Is this how you see Brazil? A rainbow-coloured collection, a collaboration between Adidas Originals and the Rio de Janeiro-based fashion company FARM RIO, thinks so.

Floralina. Adidas.

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

The stereotyping yellow border. @notnixon.

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.

Tucanario. Adidas.

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.

Frutaflor. Adidas.

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.

The Conversation

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.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Fashioning Astrology

K1
Detail of ‘Come Meet Me in the Middle of the Air’ by Marta Brysha (www.martabrysha.com). Photograph by Peter Whyte. Materials: embroidery and feathers on silk dupion.

Fashion and astrology, an ancient practice of divination that assumes a link between cosmological phenomena and human lives, in many ways form a natural complement because they are both seasonal and cyclical. The characteristics of each zodiac sign also correspond to fashion’s division of women into types. The latter is a marketing device used to appeal to the consumer’s desire to have a distinctive sense of identity within fashion’s endless variety and fluctuations. Fashion features that typecast by complexion, age or body shape often focus on bringing the physical body more in line with the fashionable ideal. Conversely, astrological typecasting, where style advice is based on mythical traits rather than empirical facts operates on an imaginative, experiential level.

In the process of astro-fashion, stylists and astrologers often promote the appearance of nearer stars: celebrities. The Australian astrologer Mystic Medusa (http://mysticmedusa.com/) uses fashion imagery to illustrate cosmological phenomena on her blog. She argues that ‘certain models and celebrities act as Muses, channeling the public imagination… they (give) out projections, like uber-Jung archetypes’. In Mystic Medusa’s experience the most potent style icons have Neptune, the planet of imagination and dreams, and the zodiac sign of Leo, the attention-seeking male lion, in prominent positions of their birth chart.

Coco Chanel, a conscious Leo, was one of the first women to typecast herself astrologically. As her biographer Justine Picardie has observed, Chanel’s affinity with her sun sign infiltrated her aesthetic: lion motifs were embossed onto her buttons and jewellery, and she named her most famous perfume Number 5 after Leo’s position in the Zodiac. Arguably, for Chanel the lion’s embodiment of leadership and majesty was a foil for her promotion of these conventionally masculine qualities through fashion.

Nowadays, the Chanel model and Leo, Cara Delevingne promotes the lion’s extrovert audacity with her abundant golden mane, cutting-edge designer clothes and a lion tattoo on her index finger. Delevingne’s Instagram profile juxtaposes snapshots of male lions pulling kooky grimaces with her own playful poses. Like Chanel, Delevingne draws upon her sun sign’s symbolism to project the image of a tomboyish fashion leader, but also projects her wild nonchalance.

Although Chanel and Delevingne have used astrology as a means of self-differentiation, stylist-astrologers in magazines have often encouraged readers to emulate a celebrity-type. Thus, for Librans like myself, the harmoniously erotic aspects of our ruler Venus are mediated through Gwyneth Paltrow’s flowing neutrals or Dita Von Teese’s saucy coordinates. While Aphrodite of Knidos had the idealised proportions of c.400 BC, the pixel-perfected media images of Paltrow and Von Teese form modern approximations of the Venusian type. Although the comparison to a media idol with the same star sign ought to be flattering, it can also feel stereotypical and emotionally inauthentic.

Mystic Medusa argues that while there is ‘a grain of truth’ in these celestial-terrestrial star identifications, being stylistically ‘in tune with your astral DNA’ comes from a fuller knowledge of your birth chart. She maintains that dressing for your ascendant, the zodiac sign and planets rising on the eastern horizon at the moment of your birth, which determine your physical persona, is more effective than dressing for your sun sign. Thus with dreamy sea planet Neptune in steely Capricorn in my ascendant my cosmically auspicious look should combine formal and ethereal elements. While I’m positively uncomfortable in anything too structured and boxy, I love black for its simplicity and am something of a mermaid with wavy hair and a penchant for pearls, scalloping and hour-long showers.

It may be that astrological insight reinforces what I already know about myself and my style, but it also evokes the feeling that the pearls, aquatic motifs and little black dresses I have always loved are uncannily appropriate for me. If the scientists are right, and we are made of star dust, why should we not have the option of dressing in a way that enhances our stellar material makeup?

Flügel, fashion and cardboard cut-outs: an evening at the Fashion Space Gallery

Relaunch
‘Dressing For Breakfast,’ 27 March 2013, Fashion Space Gallery. Photo Alexis Romano
Relaunch
‘Dressing For Breakfast,’ 27 March 2013, Fashion Space Gallery. Photo Alexis Romano

relaunch1

My recent encounter with a woman disguised as a lobster with glittery flippers, brought to mind the psychologist J.C. Flügel’s ideas on protection and clothing. In 1930, he wrote that ‘[t]he desire for protection against human enemies has led to the development of quite a special kind of clothing, known as armour.’ Likewise, the woman wore this costume to protect against the negative experiences of everyday life, such as the emotional upheaval and awkwardness of a first date. Constructed from cardboard, however, her lobster armour was of the flimsy kind. Its material spoke to fashion’s contradictory nature: in lieu of protection the garment left its wearer vulnerable and transparent. Early commentators on fashion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often questioned the functional purpose of dress and, for Flügel especially, the psychological translation of materials, silhouettes and colours. They tended to ask what Joanne Entwistle later termed ‘why questions’ concerning people’s motives for dressing and the changing nature of fashion. Similarly, in her performance “about getting dressed” on 27 March, Rachel Snider began by recalling the reasons she changed her clothing, as a result of stains or for a particular occasion, for instance. From there she recounted personal experiences, such as first dates.

This performance was part of a series of collaborations between Rachel Snider and costume and set designer Petra Storrs entitled “Dressing for Breakfast” in which they explore ways of dressing, tying together childhood memory, comedy and collective history. It was also commissioned for the Relaunch of the Fashion Space Gallery at the London College of Fashion, a series of thirteen live events, ranging from workshops to live fashion presentations, held between 13 and 31 March 2014. Rather than focus on a central subject, each event addressed, according to the website, ‘a pertinent theme present within the field of fashion in its widest sense.’ Director Ligaya Salazar and other organisers intended Relaunch to serve as the gallery’s ‘starting point and blueprint for a new approach and exhibition cycle.’ One unifying aspect was the adaptable modular seating plan designed by The Decorators. Indeed the Relaunch logo was abstracted from this installation, present at every event in some form, cementing the importance of adaptability and rethinking in discussions of fashion in this new space.

To tell her story, Snider deployed oversized paper cut-out costumes with flaps, that looked like giant versions of dress-up dolls’ clothes. Two women, clad in combination underwear pinned the cut-outs – taken from an oversized clothesline – to Snider’s own late nineteenth-century style cotton chemise and drawers. The trio, adorned in the colourful and theatrical paper clothing, resembled marionettes.

Emotion was also treated as a material element to be pinned onto the body, and throughout her narration tears and bodily organs in paper appeared at the appropriate moments to translate anxiety, vulnerability, confidence, and pleasure. Armour for protection was balanced with glittery flippers for decoration. Language consisted of clothing, simple gestures, words and occasional bursts of music. Much like earlier commentaries on fashion, Snider reduced fashion to simple terms.

Yet this very simplicity underlined the complex, tacit associations of the physical and psychological. Snider’s argument that cardboard cut-outs were necessary to weather difficult daily experiences resonated with the entire audience. Flügel also related the physical to people’s psychological and lived experience and likened armour to clothing that protected ‘against the general unfriendliness of the world as a whole; or, expressed more emotionally, a reassurance against the lack of love. If we are in unfriendly surroundings, whether human or natural, we tend, as it were, to button up, to draw our garments closely round us.’ In contrast, reinforced by the lobster disguise, spectators recalled moments when their sartorial efforts failed to protect. Snider laced humour throughout her similarly bleak story further complicating surface materials, just as Flügel theorised that ‘positive and negative elements are so intimately intertwined that it is difficult or impossible to disentangle them.’

Sources:

Entwistle, J. (2000) The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory, Cambridge: Polity, p. 57.

Flügel, J.C. (1950 [1930]) The Psychology of Clothes, London: The Hogarth Press, pp. 69, 71, 74, 77.

Re-Thinking The Experience And Representation Of Dress

Alexis-Katerina1
Katerina and Alexis during their introduction

On 6 May 2014, we held a study day at The Courtauld’s Research Forum. This day was a result of a collaboration between the Andrew W Mellon Foundation MA 2013/14: Documenting Fashion: Dress, Film, and Image in Europe and America, 1920-45 and the Fashion Research Network. The theme, Documenting Fashion: Re-Thinking the Experience and Representation of Dress, came out of our collective concern to enrich the ways we think about and discuss dress, rethink universalising narratives, and incorporate the multiple sources that illuminate hitherto unexposed aspects of dressed experience.

To introduce the study day, Katerina Pantelides and Alexis Romano analysed a contemporary news image by Andy Rain that appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 30 April. The photograph, which documented people queuing at a bus-stop during that day’s RMT Tube strike, presented most study day delegates with a familiar, timely picture. As opposed to many strike images of overhead views of commuters in a frenzied swarm, this format allows a full view of queuers’ dressed bodies. Although it is not the most obvious fashion-focused image, it is a valuable document of contemporary, quotidian dress. Moreover, its non high-fashion quality pertained to the study day, over the course of which participants questioned what defines a fashion image or experience.

The image, which illustrates the close-up view of a line of people that recedes into the distance, is cropped to give the impression of the bus queue’s endless extension. Its constituents form a diverse group of people in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and fashionability. Overall, the people in the queue are united through their orderly linear formation and jerky, angular body posture that indicates their resistance. Exceptions to this rule stand out: for example the poised girl in black leather with headphones and her hands in her pockets commands our attention.

Viewers’ observations of the seasonal, utilitarian clothing worn by the subjects shifts to their sensorial reception of the image.  They might feel somewhat stifled by subjects’ layered clothing of coarse materials: denim, faux leather, wool. Viewers’ feeling of closure is intensified by the photo’s close crop, while the image’s overall darkness owes to the dull, neutral colours of the dress worn.

If we compare this photograph with those in fashion editorials, for example, there are some crucial differences. The photograph is centred around a news event, rather than fashion presentation, and the bodies featured are incidental and not chosen in the manner of fashion models. Thus, we are presented with a more inclusive picture of contemporary dress and its wearers. In other ways, boundaries between the two photographic modes are almost permeable, from fashion’s interest in visualisations of the street to the use of similar techniques, such as juxtapositions between order and chaos, mass and detail.

The study day discussed the meaning and serendipity to be found in mundane experiences and images of dress, such as this non-purposeful photograph seemingly captured outside of real time when subjects turn inward. Similarly for Richard Dawkins: “[t]he word ‘mundane’ has come to mean ‘boring’ and ‘dull’, and it really shouldn’t – it should mean the opposite. Because it comes from the latin mundus, meaning ‘the world’. And the world is anything but dull… There’s real poetry in the real world.”

Source:

The Enemies of Reason (2007), television broadcast, episode 1, “Slaves to Superstition,” Channel 4, 13 August. Written and presented by Richard Dawkins.

5 MINUTES WITH… Antony Hopkins

Antony Hopkins

You would expect a librarian to be organised and efficient, and Antony Hopkins, Kilfinan Librarian, Head of Book, Witt and Conway Libraries at The Courtauld extends these professional skills into all aspects of his life. So, when I met him recently for a chat about his clothes, he had just packed away his autumn/winter wardrobe and swapped to spring/summer styles ready for the new season. This meant a pairing of crisp cotton shirt in a red and white check, and pale chinos – a suitably breezy outfit for the all too rare London sunshine.

While Antony favours American sportswear labels – today’s ensemble is all from Banana Republic – he is keen to set parameters on just how casually dressed you can be at work.  He has considered the possibility of wearing ‘a jean’ to the library, but he feels that ‘biscuit’ Calvin Klein trousers are as informal as he should go – although he has been known to wear cargo shorts in summer. And one of the things I like about Antony’s workwear is that there is always a slight holiday air to his outfits that adds to our libraries’ cheerful atmosphere.

Another aspect of Antony’s attitude to fashion that endears him to dress historians, is his consciousness of the ways clothing must not just meet your own ideas of appropriateness and style, but also – to paraphrase Erving Goffman – meet the expectations of those you will encounter in the workplace. Indeed, Antony draws on Ru Paul’s oft-quoted truism that ‘we’re born naked, and the rest is drag’, to describe his own dressing process as donning ‘work drag.’ A brilliant way to think about how we transform ourselves to – quite literally – perform our required role.

This is not to say that he ignores the more personal and intimate aspects of dressing. As he talks about his clothes, Antony continually refers to his partner and family – demonstrating how entwined our sense of self and interest in dress is with memory and relationships to others.  Thus, he describes how he and his partner share clothes – which simultaneously ‘doubles and halves your wardrobe,’ while he discusses his love of Crocs as in part a result of heredity. Since, as his Grandma would say, ‘we’re right wide-footed [in our family].’

Ah yes, the rather controversial subject of his choice of footwear. He has a big collection of Crocs, in various styles and colours that he shares with his partner. Antony sees them as not just ‘incredibly comfortable,’ but also as having a ‘Bauhaus-ness‘ to them. This opinion has led to an ongoing – good-natured – dispute with one of The Courtauld’s professors, who fails to see the link between these moulded plastic shoes and modernist Weimar design. A lively debate that only adds to Antony’s value to the dress history community, as well as to The Courtauld’s Libraries.