Fashioning Astrology

Detail of ‘Come Meet Me in the Middle of the Air’ by Marta Brysha ( 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 ( 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

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


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.’


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

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.”


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.

Pinpoints of Beauty & Violence


Tucked into The Courtauld’s History of Dress Archive is a rare and elusive fashion journal, Pinpoints. In its first issue, it declared its founding intention of seeking ‘a better understanding of Beauty.’ Certainly, the accompanying image depicts a beautiful woman, with her eyes closed, as if in a state of deep meditation. Other elements of the illustration, produced in black ink on a stark yellow background, also conform to traditional beauty: the timeless, hourglass proportions of a mannequin, and the classic vase sprouting elegant leaves. Yet these aspects do not add up to a harmonious whole. Contrarily, the woman is not depicted intact; rather, her head and arms are floating fragments. Together with the mannequin, she becomes a part living, part inanimate doll, seemingly in the process of removing her own head. Yet, with a peaceful expression, this is presented as a natural action. On a chair to her side lies a neatly severed head, like a perfectly interchangeable accessory. Again, there are no signs of the violence, merely serenity, and once more, the eyelids are blissfully closed.

This sleepy sentiment created – even in the face of physical fragmentation – is enhanced by the setting.  Indicated only by a line for the horizon, and stylised rocks, a drifting, ominous and oneiric atmosphere, where anything can happen, is exuded.  It is no coincidence, then, that the image was published at the height of fashion’s infatuation with Surrealism: the artistic and literary group that prized the subconscious, and dreams as a way of accessing and unlocking it. Doing so had the revolutionary promise of escaping the bourgeois actions that had led to the First World War. And violence – which still infused the shaken, de-centred life of interwar modernity – could be similarly progressive, as advocated by both André Breton and Georges Bataille: two Surrealist main players who otherwise tended to conflict. For Breton, ‘The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly… into the crowd’, and such violent tropes were at their strongest within the group’s visual output during the 1930s, coinciding with this illustration.

Whilst Pinpoints did not conjure such explicit violence, it nevertheless permeates its stylish surface. Within the image, threatening potential lies in the scattered, oversized sewing pins, which stand erect amongst the legs of the vase, mannequin and chair. Their sharp points are safely buried in the ground, softening their sharpness. Hidden in this way, their violent capabilities lie latent, and, being so close to resting, unaware eyes, their power intensified. The war was over, but anxiety prevailed, if only behind the eyes, beneath consciouness. From the violent capabilities of a the pin – humble, yet essential for dress – to the cool horror implicated by the presentation of human body parts as inanimate accessories, fashion is intertwined with Surrealism: not only superficially, as often claimed, but by demonstrating several significant principles. If only for a snapshot within the turning of a page, as fleeting and fragmented as the post-war quotidien, fashion was rendered a vehicle of violence with transcendent possibilities, lurking beneath a smooth, superficial veneer.


A. Breton, Manifest du Surrealisme, La Revolution surrealiste, December 1929. English translation by R. Seaver and H.R. Lane in A. Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism (Ann Arbor, 1969).

Re-Thinking The Experience And Representation Of Dress

Image for Study Day Essay

Image 2 for Study Day Essay

On 6 May 2014, we held a study day, Documenting Fashion: Re-Thinking The Experience And Representation Of Dress, at The Courtauld’s Research Forum. This day was the result of a collaboration between the Andrew W Mellon Foundation MA 2013/14: Documenting Fashion: Dress, Film and Image in Europe & America, 1920-45, and Fashion Research Network.

This is an extract from Dr Rebecca Arnold’s keynote talk, Wearing and Viewing Fashion in 1920s America, which focuses on 1min 49secs-3mins 15 secs of this film from the Prelinger Archives: click to see film.

The clip shows how people move and display their bodies at the pool – its jerkiness and speed only serve to highlight the jumps between swimwear and more formal promenade dress. Surfaces are continually displayed and broken, to provoke haptic responses within the viewer – the pool’s surface is breached by the divers, as their bodies impact the water, a repeated action that echoes the movement of the film through the projector, as they circle back for another dive. Their hair becomes slick and their costumes dark and heavy, saturated by water. Their dress and bodies’ materiality is twinned with their emotions’ materiality. Their vigour and joy as water touched skin is made manifest by the film’s own surfaces and movement. The swimmers’ happy faces provoke emotion in viewers – both at the pool, and in the viewing room. This emotional, tactile, visual response remains for us to experience now. In the 1920s, this would have been newer and more intense. Young women parade for, but also shy away from the camera’s stare, wrapped in short, graphic kimonos that add a Hollywood swagger to their simple unisex swimming costumes.  They are aware, if only dimly at this point in history, of how to behave for such scrutiny. Their movements are only slightly adjusted and modified for its gaze, but, like their peers, they remain amateurs – uncertain whether to acknowledge the camera’s presence. They occasionally return its stare, but through sidelong glances, cautious, about paying it too much attention. As Ian Craven has noted of amateur film: ‘At the same time, in their organisation of image, editing, point-of-view and camera movement, such films also disclose symptomatic family dynamics and gender roles on holiday, as well as broaching significant issues of authorship and control.’  The swimmers’ impromptu combinations of knitwear and bathing suits, everyday and leisure wear twinned with active sports clothes, underlines this blurriness. They perform their gender roles and fulfill audience expectations of what happens at the pool, but there is also an element of surprise and spontaneity in their actions and dress adaptations. The idealisation of reality – as depicted in this film, repeated and instilled the idea of the perfect day by the pool, the right way to play on the beach, dress for the promenade. Richard Koeck and Les Roberts have discussed film’s particularlity in this instance: ‘… The medium of the film creates a spatial depth that is different to that of other forms of visual representation. The framing of the location, the lack of colour, the richness of the picture contrast, the movement of the shutter, and, not least, the unedited nature of the footage render real spaces in a new light that is specific to the magical and photogenic properties of early film’. Thus, when seen in relation to fashion editorial and advertising imagery and other contemporary media, it is possible to track emergent forms of realism that are symbiotic with spectacle and conscious display.


Craven, I., ed. (2009) Movies on Home Ground: Explorations in Amateur Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.

Koeck, R. and Roberts, L. (2010) ‘Introduction: projecting the Urban’, in Koeck, R. and Roberts, L. (eds.) The City and the Moving Image: Urban Projections, London: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 10.


Collage by Alexis Romano
Collage by Alexis Romano


Inspired by our desire to share our ideas about fashion and dress with as wide an audience as possible, Documenting Fashion: A Dress History Blog brings together essays and comment from current History of Dress staff and students from The Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

We want to create a space to discuss the rich and varied dress-related activities and resources – and fashions – within The Courtauld itself, as well as commenting on fashions in the wider world.

We will also give snapshots of our work in progress, interview people about their attitudes to fashion and dress, and share an art historical, interdisciplinary perspective on what dress means and how it can be thought and written about now.



The Social History of Lipstick: Why 1920s Beauty Journalism is useful for more than just retro make-up tips


“Beauty is the last true thrill left us in a mechanized age,” wrote American Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld in his foreword to beauty editor Josephine Huddleston’s 1929 book Secrets of Charm, “it is a precious gift that cannot be standardized. Everything else is routined and regulated and ordered but beauty cannot be had for the asking”. Ziegfeld’s opening declaration to this comprehensive volume, which details everything from skin and haircare to ‘how to cultivate a sweet smile’ immediately reveals more of the changing social climate of 1920s America than even the most ironclad social manifesto. The advent of new technology and social order dominated contemporary thought, while evolving attitudes to traditional femininity remained central to shifts within gender roles and occupations. It is for this reason that such unintentionally political literature assumes a significant value to anyone hoping to analyse or investigate the social landscape of any given historical period.

As the editor of a beauty column which boasted a readership of nearly seven million American women, Josephine Huddleston had “an unusual opportunity to study women’s needs” from the 1920s onwards. Years of such accidental research resulted in a publication that offered advice on not only the practicalities of maintaining a period-specific aesthetic allure (‘applying bleach paste for stubborn freckles’ and ‘how to promote growth of lashes’ are just two examples) but, more crucially, on the cultivation of an inner “charm [that was] far more vital than physical beauty alone”. Her descriptions of this so-termed ‘charm’ illuminate contradictory feelings about both the role and desires of women of this period:

It is the power that takes a chorus girl out of tights and puts her name in electric lights. It is the power that makes the Only Man place a diamond circlet upon the finger that tells the world you are his to love, cherish and protect for as long as you both shall live. And it is the power that makes most women hate with a burning intensity the woman who has it, for women know its great influence.

Huddleston’s conclusion that charm and beauty are essential to both a woman’s accomplishment of individual professional status and the securing of a husband who can provide for them is highly telling of a contemporary tension between women’s growing independence and an attitude to domestic ‘destiny’ and desire that might, today, be considered borderline sexist and stereotypical. “To be beautiful, one must be in love”, she declares, before adding: “it is not essential that one be in love with a man, but one must have something…whether it be husband or hobby”. Huddleston obviously remains acutely aware of such conflicts, and it is thus through the use of cosmetic preparations, fashion, exercise and deportment that she suggests a solution to this double-edged sword of femininity:

It is true that women, in surprisingly large numbers, are nursing the idea of economic independence because they are bringing home round dollars in sizable amounts each week- dollars that have been earned by their own efforts. But…Man is still the controlling figure in the world…[and] he expects women to profit by his efforts in an intelligent way and his idea of intelligence is beauty and charm. We may rebel at the idea, but we can’t change the fact.

To a modern reader, this book is undoubtedly a fascinating vintage gem, brimming with humorously outdated advice on sick bed beauty and superfluous body hair while simultaneously revealing the origins of much sworn-by old wives’ tales and cementing their tried-and-tested effectiveness. Yet, within its yellowed pages, we also become privy to a unique condensation of contemporary attitudes, norms and yearnings that reveal as much about the precarious position occupied by Western women during the 1920s as the correct medium for painting one’s lips at the time of press (good old-fashioned rouge, now you ask). Of course, it is only with the benefit of historical hindsight that such conventions and prejudices are truly exposed, but the book’s underlying philosophy is one that still rings true today, and can be related to whatever our social status, romantic situation or professional occupation: “is there anything lovelier than the habit of beauty?”


Huddleston, J. (1929) Secrets of Charm, New York and London: G.P.Putnam’s Sons.

The ‘neue frau’ and fashion in Otto Dix’s ‘Three Prostitutes’ (1925)

Otto Dix’s Three Prostitutes (1925) is a painting that draws attention to the ambiguous figure of the New Woman in Weimar Germany. The Neue Frau was a complex cultural construct whose independent habits – shopping, enjoying the city’s bustling night-life, working – were seen as a cause for both celebration and anxiety; as signs of progressive civil liberties, as well as of society’s moral degradation. Although a greater number of women engaged in public life than before during this period – in 1925 about a third of the country’s female population was in the workforce – their unprecedented visibility was far from unproblematic. The fashionable female body became a key topic of debates on sexuality, morality and politics, with the New Woman becoming more of an abstracted concept than a social reality as a result. In fact, it is important to point out that although the term was evoked repeatedly, there was not a definitive type of Neue Frau. Rather, the way in which women engaged with modernity was determined by a number of factors such as class, marital status and geography. Nevertheless, a preoccupation with modern typologies is evident in Dix’s painting, whose female protagonists simultaneously refer to the pervasive practice of prostitution while also serving as caricatures of consumerist culture.

The link between prostitution and fashion was frequently made during this period, perhaps most famously articulated by Thomas Wehrling, a Weimar cultural critic. His essay ‘Berlin is Becoming a Whore,’ first published in Das Tage-Buch in 1920, explicitly aligns women’s interest in fashion and entertainment with moral debasement:

‘A generation of females has grown up that has nothing but the merchandising of their physical charms in mind. They sit in the parlors, of which there are a dozen new ones every week; they go to the cinema in the evenings, wear skirts that end above the knees, buy Elegant World and the film magazines…The display windows in the delicatessens are filled for these females; they buy furs and shoes at the most-extravagant prices and stream in herds down the Kurfurstendamm on Sunday mornings’.

In many ways, Dix’s painting can be perceived as elaborating on this seemingly new kind of fashionable female behaviour, especially through its central figure, a woman wearing a red cloche hat and veil. Her fashionable appearance, signalled by details such as the cropped Bubikopf hairstyle, may confuse viewers at first, however the prostitute’s provocative stance as she hitches up her skirt explicitly signals her profession. This pose may have been derived from real life as well as from fashion magazines. Prostitutes were forbidden to solicit potential clients verbally therefore they employed gestures and dress codes to communicate their availability to customers. Sartorial details such as a specific colour of laced boots would signal a woman’s ‘specialty.’ This practice may be referenced by another figure in the painting, the heavily made up older woman wearing red leather gloves on the left. Were it not for this subtle, yet erotically charged accessory, her disapproving facial expression and elegant attire would qualify her as a ‘respectable’ bourgeois stroller.

The sense of ambiguity is heightened by an image of a woman’s leg in the background. It is unclear whether the high-heeled limb stepping on a globe appears on a poster or in a shop window. It is possible that the red initials “RM” reference the Reichs Mark, introduced in 1924 to stabilise the German economy. It may also allude to the visibility of women’s legs as a result of shorter hemlines, in revue performances, advertisements for silk stockings or all of the above. It also recalls Wehrling’s description of display windows filled with desirable consumer goods. However in the painting this appears in inverted form, as it is the prostitutes, clad in fashionable articles, who are displayed as merchandise in one of the shopping streets of Weimar Berlin. Furthermore, the conflation of woman as commodity in this case could also have quite a literal source, as it was not uncommon to have mannequins modelling store wares in the display window for a riveted audience. Dix’s painting therefore intentionally compounds aspects of femininity as seen at night, on the street and in media imagery in order to blur the boundaries between woman as consumer and commodity in Weimar Berlin.

For an image of Otto Dix’s Three Prostitutes please click here.


von Ankum, K. (1997) ‘Gendered Urban Spaces in Das Kunstseidene Mädchen’, in von Ankum, K. (ed.) Women in the Metropolis: Gender and Modernity in Weimar Culture, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.

Buruma, I. (2006) ‘Faces of the Weimar Republic’, in Rewald, S. (ed.) Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Ganeva, M. (2008) Women in Weimar Fashion: discourses and displays in German culture, 1918-1933, Rochester, New York: Camden House.

Kaes, A., Jay, M., and Dimendberg, E. (1994) The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press.

Weitz, E. D. (2007) Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Flights of Fancy: Fashion and the Butterfly in Jean Paul Gaultier’s Spring 2014 Couture Collection

Jean Paul Gaultier’s Spring 2014 couture collection, on the surface, was a platform of pulsating vivacity, spectacle, and shimmer. He declared “Life is a butterfly! So all the collection is that!”: a simile that not only provided fundamental inspiration, but permeated the entire collection. From raw denim, to sumptuous evening gowns; wings, silhouettes, antennae and more, punctuated every piece. In some cases the references were explicit, when gowns moulded models’ bodies into whole, vibrant butterflies, or jackets morphed and elongated wearers’ shoulders into wings. Within other looks, subtlety prevailed, but the motif was no less prevalent: the quiet presence of a stylised butterfly outline tessellated into a widely-featured, laser-cut leather pattern, or the placement of a cameo-style butterfly silhouette at the top of a shirt-collar.

This homage to the insect drew out the shared focus on materiality, aesthetics and form – decorating the self – between fashion, and the butterfly, who depends on surface pattern for the survival of the species, such as attracting mates. Personal adornment not only enhances an individual’s appearance, but, as Georg Simmel argued in his 1908 ‘Sociology’, also gives pleasure to others. Both whimsical couture, as demonstrated by Gaultier, and the purposefully artful appearance of butterflies, capture delight, and achieve a visual feast for the senses of the observer.

Through doing so, each offers the tantalising chance for rebirth and re-invention. The butterfly depends on such changes by the very nature of its existence, from caterpillar, to chrysalis, to adult, and Gaultier reflected this notion within his collection.

Regarding the woman it targets, he enthused ‘by night, she becomes a showgirl!’, and sartorial nods towards this transformation were made through corsets and feather headpieces. Yet by their very nature, these apparitions and revelations, for both fashion and the butterfly, are transitory: they retain their cultural currency on a seasonal-only basis in the former, and last merely days or weeks in the fleeting life of the latter. But could this enhance, or inform, their respective charm? As philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky has mused, ‘what we call fashion in the strict sense… is, the systematic reign of the ephemeral, of frequent evanescent fluctuations.’ If something cannot be enjoyed permanently, its value and wonder increases symbiotically.

A dark undercurrent shot through Gaultier’s collection and communicated this vulnerability. In several pieces, delicate, sheer layers of frothy cloth built up frou-frou clouds, which correspond to the thin, transparent layers that together form the wings of a butterfly. In places, Gaultier highlighted this susceptibility through deliberate juxtapositions with tough, black leather within the same ensemble, or even used oversized mesh to the same extent, enclosing model and garment in a cage. A butterfly’s markings exist not only for mating and aesthetic pleasure, but are also essential within the more sinister side of survival, protection rather than procreation: warding off predators and creating camouflage. Similarly, fashion, far from being frivolous, can correspond to wider concerns, such as, as in Gaultier’s case, freedom and entrapment, and life and death. As Lipovetsky went on to say, ‘through the fleeting nature of fashion… human sovereignty and autonomy are affirmed, exercising their dominion over the natural world as they do over their own aesthetic décor.’ The butterfly, a mainstay source of symbolism in the arts for centuries, and seen to represent the soul, encapsulates the tensions that together make fashion what it is: ephemeral and enrapturing, yet inextricably bound with a rich and meaningful depth.

For collection images please click here.


Lipovetsky, G. (1994) The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.