Wardrobes in the Museum – Two Exhibitions Examined

Isabella Blow: Peter MacDiarmid/Getty for Somerset House
Isabella Blow: Peter MacDiarmid/Getty for Somerset House
Final Touches Made To Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!, A New Somerset House Exhibition
Isabella Blow: Peter MacDiarmid/Getty for Somerset House
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Roman d’une garde-robe: Raphaël Chipault and Benjamin Soligny
Roman d’une garde-robe: Raphaël Chipault and Benjamin Soligny
Roman d’une garde-robe: Raphaël Chipault and Benjamin Soligny

The wardrobe is a physical space that houses clothing and insinuates expressions of self. It was also the subject of two exhibitions that came to a close this month: Roman d’une garde-robe. Le Chic d’une Parisienne de la Belle Epoque aux Années 30, Musée Galliera, held at the Musée Carnavalet, Paris, and Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! At Somerset House, London examined the ‘wardrobes’ of Alice Alleaume and Isabella Blow, two women who lived during very different periods. Both occupied advantaged positions in society and the fashion world, thus allowing exhibition viewers a privileged glimpse into histories of the early and late years of the 20th century in Paris and London. With the wardrobe as a foundation, as opposed to one designer’s work for example, we can approach fashion as a complex web of topics, sections, and professionals, including Alleaume – head saleswoman at the Maison Chéruit and other couture houses, and Blow – editor, muse, and broker.

The metaphor of the singular wardrobe also presents the personal and subjective dimensions of fashion and allowed viewers, in these instances, to re-examine a well-known media persona, as well as rediscover a forgotten figure. Both exhibitions began with explorations of the family histories of their subjects, which served to establish and extend the narratives chronologically, to Belle Epoque Paris for instance, and psychologically, providing insight into the subjects’ mindsets. In the case of Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!, curated by Alistair O’Neill with Shonagh Marshall, viewers were confronted with fragments of personal and national history that informed how Blow deciphered the world, and subsequently, how viewers analysed the exhibition’s contents.

The notion of the multilayered wardrobe reflects the complexity of any person’s narrative, as well as curators’ scrupulous research. The diverse resources on display at Roman d’une garde-robe, curated by Sophie Grossiord, including letters, paintings, notebooks, photographs, fashion plates, and surviving clothing, reflected the organising institutions’ focus on fashion and Paris history. Most importantly, Grossiord made use of the Paris Archives’ collection of drawings, fabric samples and dépôts de modèles – photographs of numbered garments that protected against copying. During her lecture at the Archives on 6th February, Grossiord explained how they served as valuable tools, along with cahiers de ventes, to piece together historic collections. The curatorial possibilities of these documents, however, are vast.

The wardrobe functioned as spatial metaphor for the installations. O’Neill staged sets that reflected the fanciful, sometimes archival workings of Blow’s psyche and wardrobe. Grossiord was much more conservative in terms of display and did not exploit the wardrobe’s spatial potential. The exhibition, however, situated fashion in the cultural and historic context of Paris due to its location in the Musée Carnavalet, which, according to the brochure, “invites visitors to discover Paris, the world fashion capital, in the company of Alice Alleaume.” Although the exhibition upheld the usual ideas on Paris’ fashion hegemony, its attempt at narrative was respectable. Equally, it would be interesting to use the wardrobe to explore the narratives of more ordinary subjects, which might further drive viewers to turn inward and question their own.

‘I spotted you there’: an interview with Jooney Woodward

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Shannon, Royal Welsh Show, 2013
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Kallum, Norton Heath, Essex, 2013
Jodie, Hickstead, Longines Royal International Horse Show, 2013
Jodie, Hickstead, Longines Royal International Horse Show, 2013
Jooney Woodward
Jooney Woodward

Standing distractedly before the camera, the girl stares off into the distance, frowning. Her small frame is dressed in clothes that seem too grown up and formal, despite the bright red of her tie and the matching windowpane check of her jacket. Her jodhpurs and accessories tell us she is a rider – her outfit a statement of her dedication and intent – leather gloves, hacking jacket, and horse’s bridle slung over her shoulder like a handbag. And yet, despite all this swagger, something is slightly off, her pale yellow jodhpurs twist around her leg, her jacket seems too big, her tie is trying to escape from her collar, and her hair seems trapped in the tight hairnet that encircles her head.

It is just this sense of individuality within a rural community, that photographer Jooney Woodward is fascinated by. ‘Shannon, Royal Welsh Show,’ is part of her project ‘The Riders’ shot between July and November 2013, a portrait series showing scenes from a range of horse shows and tournaments at both amateur and professional levels in southern England and Wales. Jooney says of Shannon, ‘her pose is a bit awkward…she drifted off…was in a world of her own.’

Jooney seeks to make a connection with her sitters, as she says, to strike up ‘a mini-friendship, ‘ to put them at their ease. Chatting as she watches and waits for the right moment, she takes only a small number of frames of each sitter, as she says, ‘I don’t like chasing the photo.’ She works on a bulky Mamiya RZ 67. More used to small digital cameras capturing their image, sitters pause and interact with her – ‘people see you with this massive camera and they react differently to it … I think my stuff is quite composed, rather than action shots. The camera is so heavy that wouldn’t be possible…It’s all about the opening few minutes of a relationship. I want to capture how they were feeling before I came up to them’ –when something about their appearance, ‘their look’ made her choose them as subjects.

Interestingly, dress plays a significant part in this exchange. She often spots people because of the way they have styled themselves, or a striking aspect of their appearance – as in Shannon’s case – the hairnet seems both part of an accepted norm for riders, yet weirdly out of synch with the wearer.  Jooney uses clothes to start the conversation – ‘I spotted you there, and I love what you’re wearing, it makes you stand out from the background’ is an opening gambit that eases conversation.

And clothes are also an important aspect of Jooney’s own intuitive approach. Over time, she has realized that wearing ‘bright, happy, non-threatening clothes,’ make people more willing to stop and speak to her, and more relaxed when she takes their picture. As she says, ‘people have a certain look, and I think that’s what I want to capture.’

See more of Jooney’s work: jooneywoodward.co.uk

Snapshot: Jum Nakao

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The Japanese-Brazilian Fashion designer Jum Nakao (b. 1966 in Sao Paulo, the second largest Japanese community in the world) is a conceptual designer, meaning that ideas tend to take precedence over function. Nakao’s daring collections, which are characterised by austere, minimal design, monochromatic colours, architectural shapes, and the use of unconventional materials, such as dustbin bags or paper, can be seen to reference his Japanese heritage, and the work of designers Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto in the early 1980s. He has produced many projects that are independent of fashion, and exhibited at art galleries and museums internationally, including Musée Galliera in Paris, MoMu in Antwerp, Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, and most recently, participated in ‘From the Margin to the Edge: Brazilian Art and Design in the twenty-first century’ at Somerset House, London in July 2012.

In the early stages of his career Nakao was interested in computer electronics but moved into fashion in 1983, which he found to be the ideal medium for his artistic production. Clothing occupies the boundary between people and the world, and for Nakao, provides a means of interfering with reality and everyday life. He worked as a tailor for two years, creating clothes for different body types. This training was key to his understanding that ‘everybody has a pattern, every defect has a solution – a process where you can, through more organic and straight lines, compensate and create new shapes’. Designing is a form of problem solving for Nakao and he approaches it in a rational, quasi-scientific manner. From the outset, Nakao has sought ways of designing clothing that addresses contemporary concerns and sensibilities, utilising digital technology and sophisticated, handcraft techniques to establish a dialogue between thread, pattern, the body and its surrounding milieu.

Nakao applies aesthetic and working practices to examine the very nature of fashion, and his designs have attracted a critical and discerning international clientele. An example can be seen in the highly acclaimed collection ‘Costura do Invisible’ (Sewing the Invisible) that showcased at Sao Paulo Fashion Week in summer 2004. Constructed entirely from vegetable paper, Nakao’s haunting and delicate fairy-tale designs were embossed with low and high relief-like patterns, decorated with lace cut-outs meticulously cut by lasers, and assembled by hand into intricate origami folds. Elaborate fashion styles from the nineteenth century were combined with black plastic hats inspired by Playmobile toy figures. Despite over seven hundred hours of manual labour and the use of one ton of paper, following the seven-minute catwalk performance the models created a sensation by ripping up their garments. Nakao has commented on the collection: ‘we destroy everything, to show that there is something more important, something much more lasting than what people see and value at first sight’. The designer has said that he was challenging mass-market perceptions of fashion and commenting on its ephemeral quality. He encouraged discussion and debate amongst the audience by creating something that had numerous interpretative possibilities.  Endowing paper with a newfound meaningfulness, Nakao’s work is resonant with the Portuguese word Gambiarra, which has no English translation but is used colloquially throughout Brazil to refer to a makeshift contraption or improvised solution. Gambiarra is believed to be a direct result of the unpredictability of everyday life in Brazil, in which things often do not occur as planned; this requires Brazilians to be inventive and agile. For Nakao, more than simply a versatile material with many uses, paper becomes a cultural marker indicating a distinctively Brazilian attitude based on making do with what is readily available.

‘Meninas do Brasil’ by Mari Stockler

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Image from Meninas do Brasil
Image from Meninas do Brasil
Image from Meninas do Brasil

Faces and feet are out of focus or cropped out of the frame, whereas breasts and bottoms are emphasised and given a literal and psychological sexual charge that both objectifies and abstracts bodies of all shapes, shades and sizes. Such deliberate technical shortcomings, combined with the gaudy colours of cheap Kodak Instamatic film, inject a gritty realism into these confessional photographs that draw the viewer in with a highly developed aesthetic sensibility. They have the appearance of spontaneous observation and form part of a project entitled Meninas do Brasil [Girls of Brazil], which was started by the Rio de Janeiro-based Brazilian documentary and fashion photographer Mari Stockler in 1996.

Stockler was inspired by a song, written by the Brazilian composer and singer Dorival Caymmi, ‘Um Vestido de Bolero’ [A Bolero Dress], which she heard whilst on holiday in Salvador da Bahia. It describes an awkward young woman who dresses in an eclectic ensemble combining a burgundy jacket with a green, blue and white skirt.  Whilst shooting a short film in the poorer suburbs of Rio de Janeiro a few months later, Stockler was reminded of Caymmi’s song when she witnessed an interesting fashion phenomenon unfold before her eyes: ‘I realised that something very powerful was happening. It was a kind of “haute couture” made by anonymous designers. The interesting thing is that these anonymous designers were very influenced by Azzedine Alaia. They used to buy old fashion magazines from the 1980s. This was before Jennifer Lopez or Salma Hayek became successful in Hollywood for their Latin American sexiness’. Alaia’s designs, as customised and reinterpreted, resulted in spandex trousers, tops, shorts and body suits in a variety of colours, shapes, structures and sizes with different patterns, holes, transparencies and details. Stockler enthused: ‘The girls were wearing them day and night. All kinds of bodies with a funky second skin’.

She became captivated and began to photograph girls in the streets, discos, samba halls and shopping malls throughout Rio, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Belem do Para and Salvador. Dancing, chatting and laughing with them, she understood her role as a recorder of their activities, but not a choreographer of their actions: ‘None of them saw me as a “professional photographer” and this was a big condition for the image. I was with them with no critical distance.’ The tilted camera angle and blur seen in the resulting images shows that Stockler worked unobtrusively. She is never represented in the photographs, but her presence is felt in the varied ways that the subjects react to her and her camera. Stockler developed a technique that she had been taught by the Brazilian artist Regina Case, whom she describes as ‘the master of intimacy’, to get ‘very very close to them in seconds’. When asked if she posed her subjects in a certain way, Stockler recalled a scenario that produced one of her favourite images in Meninas do Brasil: ‘I never asked them to pose for the camera. There were cases of provocation as in the example of a group of three women. When I arrived they started to make fun of me. Meanwhile, I was photographing them. One asked me what kind of dress I was wearing (my clothes were different from theirs) and if I was wearing panties. I remember this as that I was wearing my husband’s underwear (I don’t know why!) and I decided to show them this. I lifted up my dress and they laughed a lot. I considered that one of my best shots’.

A French dress and the OPjectscape of 1965-6

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Emmanuelle Khanh dress, c. 1966, Collection of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. Photo Alexis Romano.

Concentric diagonal lines lead the viewer’s eye to a central triangle and button of a cotton dress. Its simple construction is composed of eight panels of fabric inventively joined on the bias to construct a dynamic motif of vertical lines. Two circular pockets with horizontal lines applied to the skirt and a vertical column of buttons that opens the garment clash with this diagonal current, and enliven the play of colour and line. Like the faux pocket at the breast, the dress teases, tricks and amuses. Although its creator, French designer Emmanuelle Khanh (b. 1937), employed whimsical and trompe l’œil details throughout her career, there was an increased interest in geometry and distortion in mid-1960s pattern design.

The dress was part of the Spring/Summer 1966 collection produced for the label I.D., created three years earlier. Its artistic director, styliste Maïmé Arnodin (1916-2003), mediated between Khanh and a network of other professionals—manufacturers, textile producers, retailers, graphic designers, journalists and photographers—to see the garment to completion. A 1966 article in Le Monde discussed stylistes, whose role, which was ‘growing nonstop as fashion industrialises,’ was to counsel their manufacturer clients on future styles and colours to render last year’s fashion obsolete. The article even surmised that stylistes premeditated the trend for Op Art, which, ‘presented with a great splash in magazines before going on sale, was almost outmoded before it was woven.’

Although limited by industrial constraints, Khanh looked outward to a culture saturated by new graphic trends. In 1965 and 1966 Op Art was a constant feature in the everyday visual landscape of France and abroad. The play of lines on her dress recalls the concentric squares in Frank Stella’s Line Up (1962). This painting was reproduced in Michel Ragon’s article in the July 1965 issue of French Vogue entitled Op Art? Sa Place est dans la rue. Stella’s painting was part of the The Responsive Eye exhibition held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1965, which popularised the movement and inspired, as Khanh recently admitted, her 1966 collection. She added that the dresses’ ‘clashing lines…broke the rhythm,’ which ‘made the silhouette vibrate.’ Cyril Barrett similarly wrote of Op painting that what ‘first confronts us is a stable and often rather monotonous repetition of lines, squares or dots. But as we continue to look at the simple structure it begins to dissolve before our eyes. The dots seem to flicker and move; the lines undulate; the surface heaves and billows.’ The moving body would have accentuated these effects. Ragon’s title alluded to the fact that this movement, as other critics argued, belonged out of the museum and ‘in the street.’ Likewise, Barrett described it as ‘an artform which was what every good dress or advertisement should be—eye-catching.’

Sources:

Barrett, C. (1971) An Introduction to Optical Art, London: Studio Vista.

Khanh, E. (n.d.) unpublished manuscript.

Mont-Servan, N. (1966) ‘Le role des stylistes’, Le Monde, 2 June.

5 minutes with… Teresa Fogarty

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How to dress for work? – This is a question women have been grappling with for at least a hundred and fifty years. How to appear appropriate, professional, fit into your environment, while looking stylish and individual? The Courtauld Institute’s receptionist of 12 years, Teresa Fogarty has another, more practical concern to add to the list – how to cope with the freezing winter air that blows into the foyer each time someone opens the front door!

As she says, ‘It’s quite awkward dressing smartly for work because I need to keep warm.’ So, Teresa has developed a well-edited selection of cashmere knitwear, neat trousers and colourful accessories to meet the challenge and project a stylish image to our visitors.

On the day we talked, she was wearing navy cords, and a matching cashmere cardigan and knotted scarf, with touches of bright primaries on a blue and white ground. Like a newsreader – her ‘audience’ usually sees her from the waist up – and her accessories draw focus, while also providing the needed protection from the elements, as she says, they ‘make an outfit and brighten everything up.’

Her eye for detail and coordination taps into workwear fail-safes that have developed since the 1930s. Soft textures, worn with tailoring and interchangeable separates are the key to her look. “I love cashmere…It’s so warm without being heavy,’ she says, ‘I generally go to Marks and Spencer’s or occasionally Jigsaw.’ Scarves are another favourite – a multi-striped silk one from Paul Smith proving to be especially versatile, its subtly varied colours coordinating with many different outfits.

Aside from her work outfits though, what is Teresa’s favourite fashion memory? Well, it turns out that she spent her teenage years hanging out at Biba. And, in keeping with her sharp eye for colour and cut – she wore a delicate blue-grey 1940s-inspired Ossie Clark dress for her wedding after-party in 1976. Bought in an Ossie Clark outlet in TopShop’s Oxford Street branch, it wrapped around the body with a tie at the waist, and in characteristic Clark-style, had a scooped out back and soft, billowing sleeves caught into a tight cuff.

Theresa remembers this as the most important outfit of the day – in contrast to her actual wedding dress – this contemporary fashion classic expressed her personality and love of dressing up in the evening – ‘I thought this [dress] was so special. The way it touches you and hangs from the body is so different…just makes you feel different…I suppose it’s all about the cut.’

And it is this appreciation of fabric and fit that informs Teresa’s choices, and shapes her work – and evening – wardrobe.