How did your academic and professional background lead to your current role at the PMA?
Originally I was interested in the history of late nineteenth-century furniture and I attended the Museum Studies program at the University of Manchester. Everyone in my class seemed to be doing ceramics or furniture, so I thought that if I was going to find a job, I needed to choose another area to focus on. I then wrote my thesis on aesthetic dress. What I liked about the history of dress was that it combined art history, fashion history, social history, and economic history – it synthesised a lot of my interests.
My first job was at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery where I was hired as the Assistant Keeper of Decorative Arts, and I was to be in charge of activating their costume collection which had been in storage for years. My first day on the job I arrived and discovered that there had been a flood in the storage area and the entire collection was laid out in the painting gallery on tables sopping wet. I was completely thrown by that because, even though we had discussions and workshops on conservation at Manchester, I wasn’t prepared for dealing with a real conservation emergency. That sent me to thinking that I really needed to add conservation to my background.
I was there for a few years and then went to the Courtauld to study textile conservation. It was at the time when Stella Mary Newton was still teaching, and the program was split between history of dress and textile conservation. After I completed that program, I had to find a job, and I wrote to probably twenty museums in the United States and heard from two. One was Williamsburg, which was offering a curatorial position and the other was the Brooklyn Museum, which was offering conservation. I thought that since I just spent all this money studying conservation that I should at least try it, so I chose Brooklyn and was there for a few years. I then took a job at the Museum of London where I started out as a textile conservator and then switched over to curatorial.
From the Museum of London, I took a job at a private conservation centre in Chicago, but, probably the first week I was there, I knew I had made a mistake and spent the next couple of years trying to figure out how to extricate myself. I was offered a freelance job at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and organised a small show on French fashion for them. I did this without the person I was working for knowing what I was doing. At the same time I was interviewing for a position at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. So I used to fly down to Texas, via Philadelphia and then back to Chicago. Eventually I was offered the job in Philadelphia, which had been vacant for seven or eight years. It turned out that they had to raise the money, but the Director in Houston kept on putting pressure on them to make a decision. That’s how I ended up in Philadelphia.
What interests you most about working with dress?
I’m interested in all aspects of the object – the history of its manufacture, the wearers, the materials, etc. I like that it can be viewed in many different contexts – fashion history, art history, social history and sociology, technology, and anthropology. It’s a jumping off point for exploring so many other areas.
What current projects are you working on at the museum?
Right now I’m working on a Patrick Kelly exhibition, which will be opening on April 26, and then I have a number of other possible projects which I can’t divulge at the moment, but some are quite exciting.
What is your favourite piece in the collection?
Whatever I acquire becomes my favourite piece! As for things in the past in terms of costume, I still love Schiaparelli’s harlequin coat for the way it’s designed – the progression of the colour. But I find anything can become a favourite once you delve into it and learn about it.
How did your Courtauld degree benefit you in your career?
I received a diploma in conservation from the Courtauld. I think it has made me a well-rounded curator and has given me another perspective. The one thing that conservation did do – and I think other colleagues who have been conservators and then become curators agree with me – is that it really taught me how to look at objects and understand them. I look first; I don’t fit the framework to the object or the history to the object. I try to read the object. That probably was the greatest benefit and that really came from having two great teachers: Karen Finch and Stella Mary Newton. Today, I think there’s an assumption that you get your MA and there’s a direct path – but you may have to segue and move sideways. Always plan ahead and think about your career path and what will distinguish you from other candidates.
Interview transcribed by Jennifer Potter with Joanna Fulginiti (Administrative Assistant, Costumes & Textiles, Philadelphia Museum of Art), March 19, 2014.
Carey Gibbons is a Fourth Year PhD student at the Courtauld Institute of Art, supervised by Professor Caroline Arscott. She was born and grew up in Memphis Tennessee, lived in New York City for ten years, and came to the Courtauld in 2009.
What are you wearing?
A black sweatshirt with a giant shark made out of rhinestones and little orange spikes for the teeth, a black fake leather skirt, black leggings and black lace-up ankle boots.
Where did you find the shark sweater?
I got it from the Forever 21 store in Chicago in January.
What has been its biggest adventure to date?
I’ve only worn it a few times, but I wore it with James (my boyfriend) to the Apple store and we took a bunch of photos on their computer. I guess you could say this shirt brings out my playful side.
Why did you want to look playful today?
It was raining and I was feeling down so I put it on and I felt more upbeat and motivated. Because a shark is a fierce creature it helps me attack my day with ferocity, perseverance and determination. Bam! (pumps the air with her fist)
Is this what you wear to the Courtauld typically?
Yes, it’s pretty typical. I like wearing clothes that incorporate animals in some way. I have a lot of clothes with animal print. I have animal jewellery. I have a shark-tooth necklace which is really important to me and a fox necklace made out of rhinestones that I really like wearing.
Is there a practical aspect to what you’re wearing?
I wear black leggings a lot because they’re really comfortable. My boots are flat… I like to wear flats or low heels so that I’m comfortable.
How does being a PhD student as opposed to a staff member or undergraduate influence how you dress?
I think if I was a staff member or a postdoctoral fellow, then I would make more of an effort to look professional, but for now I’m celebrating the opportunity to wear whatever I want and express myself through my clothes.
What makes you stand out from other Courtauldians?
(Laughs) I seek to combine the sweet and the vicious in my clothes. I would say that other Courtauldians exude a less eclectic vibe and they go for one dominant style, whereas I celebrate my contradictions!
Is there anything about your appearance or dress that marks you out as a Courtauldian?
Courtauldians imbue poise and confidence. Despite going for an eclectic look, I always try and look like I’m composed.
Has your PhD in Victorian illustration inspired your dress sense at all?
Since studying Victorian illustration I’ve become more interested in prints and I’m really into designers like Mary Katranzou and Clover Canyon. I was also captivated by the use of embroidered prints borrowed from imaginary ethnic groups in the Valentino S/S 14 collection. I like experiments with line and pattern to create a mood or evoke a fantasy world.
A phone rings. A woman begins to bathe, tentatively dipping her toe into a tub of warm water, before slowly pulling a stocking up her shapely calf. A man douses his shaving brush in cream before selecting the perfect pair of cufflinks. I’d Be Delighted To, an amateur film made in 1934, portrays a couple preparing themselves for a romantic dinner, every small step of their separate dressing rituals, and the evening itself, shown in close-up detail. This is not, however, a conventional visual narrative- the silent 14-minute film is played out solely through close-up shots of the couple’s hands and feet, as they engage in washing, dressing, drinking and dining, in a technique that shares affinities with the avant-garde cinema of the period and its alternative approach to that of Hollywood. These carefully angled shots of almost anonymous body parts, combined with inanimate objects, build up a powerful overall sequence, isolating specific details in order to form strong thematic associations between them and the viewer and therefore dramatically increasing the significance of their meanings. The direct result of this technique is a prevailing ritualistic mood and a sensual emphasis on clothes as tools for glamour and seduction. The tactile qualities of the clothes’ textures, such as the woman’s fur coat, glittering jewellery and silk dress is consequently illuminated in a manner bordering on the fetishistic, and the visual appeal of the garments becomes inextricably linked to desire and imbued with an erotic energy. The romantic tension between the couple is therefore heightened through the use and depiction of dress, presenting both a sensory experience of everyday activities such as dressing and dining and blurring the boundaries between intimacy and anonymity. The fleeting presence of a maid character, who assists with the preparation and serving of the meal, is enforced through a similar focus on dress. However, this time it is labour rather than luxury that is imposed upon the viewer as the decadently sumptuous elements of the female diner’s garments are sharply juxtaposed against the strictly utilitarian aesthetic of the maid’s plain ensemble. The overall resulting impression of this amateur film technique is an intriguing blend of both detachment and engagement, erotic charge and ambiguity; one that manages to distil its simple narrative with as much poignancy and visual force as any Hollywood sequence.
See ‘I’d Be Delighted To’ (1934) here (courtesy of the East Anglian Film Archive): http://www.eafa.org.uk/catalogue/3436
This commentary is based on a lecture given by Dr. Charles Tepperman, assistant professor of film studies at the University of Calgary entitled ‘“We are all Artists”: Amateur Film, Fashion, and the Art of the Everyday’. The lecture was given at the Courtauld Institute of Art in January 2014 as part of the Friends Lecture series based on the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation MA course ‘Documenting Fashion: Modernity, Film and Image in Europe and America, 1920-1945’.
A woman arches her back, twisting elegantly to the side, as she daintily raises her hands to her head, forming neat, careful, mirrored triangles. Her form is made up of frantic, expressive strokes of black charcoal, singed onto the buff paper with latent energy. This overspills into colour: zingy bursts of sunburnt orange, and rich, luscious green echo her movements. As do further sweeps of charcoal surrounding her figure: the ghost of a previous outline, abandoned by the artist, whose continued presence lends a sense of animation. In the foreground, an indistinguishable flurry takes place – the back of a leg, or the swish of a skirt – and the woman in question seemingly turns towards it, as another part within a precisely synchronised whole. Yet while the piece is by Edgar Degas, notorious for his effervescent depictions of the changing life of the ballet, this window reveals the careful orchestration that also took place within everyday life: in this case, as contained within a milliner’s shop. Amidst the movement of Degas’s piece, rest and relief lies in the bottom right-hand corner, where graceful folds of cloth lie sculpturally. They are seemingly set apart from the rest of the composition, reverently bathed in light, which highlights their soft luminosity. This focus on dress connected to a shift that was concurrently occurring: fashion was beginning to gain the momentum that would lead it to where it is today. The world’s first department stores had only recently been set up, in Paris, and began to offer, for the first time, garments that could be bought off the shelf, with little to no need for alteration. This set in motion the path to mass-produced clothing and the fast fashion available today, and such changes captured the attention of contemporary artists and intellectuals. They corresponded in particular with the Impressionist penchant for the pursuit of the new, the capturing of the contemporary. Édouard Manet once declared: ‘the latest fashion is absolutely necessary for a painter. It is what matters most!’ Degas was no exception, and the careful, loving attention he paid to the materiality of dress, in what is by far the most fully worked section of the study, advocated fashion, its importance, and nodded towards its serious social implications, during the 1880s and today alike. A quiet moment of appreciation towards female finery, within a rushing whirlwind towards modernity as we know it.
Dress history students in London are spoiled for choice when it comes to exhibitions, with numerous institutions and galleries catering to fashion-related interests. The Fashion and Textile Museum is one such organisation. Their current exhibition, Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol (21 January-17 May, 2014), showcases textiles and clothing produced by key figures of twentieth century art and design. Focusing on Britain and the United States, it explores the relationship between the aura of the artist and the ubiquity of mass-manufactured objects and the way in which artist textiles disrupt the binary of high art and popular culture.
Looking at artist signatures featured on a number of exhibited textiles, it is difficult not to think of Walter Benjamin’s concept of the auratic presence of unique works of art. This is especially relevant to the many scarves featured in the exhibition. Mounted like canvases, they invite the visitor to study them as they would paintings. Dali’s designs for Wesley Simpson Custom Fabrics Inc. encourage this mode of viewing, transforming the flat fabric surface into a dream-like three dimensional plane. His headscarf ‘Classical Armour’ (c. 1946-7) depicts a derelict urn and suits of armour whose contorted shadows stretch across a nondescript landscape. Cracks along the illustration create the illusion that the scarf was made of a heavier substance than the silk it was printed on. With its many recognisable Dali tropes – drooping forms, melancholy landscapes, sardonic humour – the scarf seems to blur the boundary between art and design, transforming the wearer’s body into a mobile site of display. Furthermore, by drawing attention to the artist’s signature, in this case shown on the lower right-hand side and as a broken coin in the foreground, viewers are encouraged to forget that they are studying a mass-produced object.
Such examples displayed in the exhibition indicate that collaborations between artists and fabric manufacturers proved a lucrative endeavour, targeting audiences that were keen to gain cultural capital by acquiring textiles that featured well-known modernist designs. Instead of destroying the cult status of artworks then, such printed fabrics reinforced the aura of the artist genius and played an important role in familiarising a wide audience with the modernist canon. Although these objects may be viewed with academic suspicion due to their commercial appeal, the exhibition aims to dispel such concerns by focusing on how artist textiles allowed people to engage with modern art in their everyday lives. Wall texts, advertisements and magazine excerpts convincingly suggest that these fabrics served as an interface between high art and popular culture. At the same time, it would have been beneficial to learn more about how the displayed objects were worn and perceived by an enthusiastic public.
Although the exhibition predominantly focuses on the collaboration between artists and textile manufacturers, examples from the work of designers, such as Adrian and Claire McCardell add an exciting variety to its scope for audiences interested in fashion history. Commissioned by Fuller Fabrics to produce garments from their ‘Modern Masters’ range, McCardell used Picasso’s ‘Fish’ print (1955) to create a dress that featured some of her signature trademarks, which included the use of natural fabrics – in this case cotton – and details that accentuated the wearer’s body, such as belts and gathered pleats. Fuller Fabrics’ decision to hire McCardell indicates that some ready-to-wear designers were becoming increasingly influential in America during this period. Viewed within the context of the exhibition then, this dress points to the crucial role that mass-produced fashion played in twentieth-century material and visual culture by disseminating ideas and ideals of modernity.
On 7 February, the athletes of the 88 nations competing in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia paraded into Fisht Olympic Stadium. As an American, I felt unexpectedly proud as I watched Team USA, led by flag bearer Todd Lodwick, march into the stadium in their red, white, and blue patchwork uniforms, designed and made in America by heritage brand Ralph Lauren. In this singular event, prior to the start of the actual competitions, the patriotically clad bodies of the American Olympic athletes united ideas of sport and fashion and became a symbol of national identity.
Dress historian Christopher Breward has argued that many connections exist between the spectacle of sporting and sartorial performance, and they became especially apparent on the bodies of America’s Olympians during the Parade of Nations. Through these bodies, physically fit and dressed to match the familiar colours of the American flag, Team USA presented itself as a national symbol that embodied athletic strength and foreshadowed the country’s victory in the Games. This display of fashion and athletic prowess was partially directed towards their international peers and competitors. However, Olympians also aimed to inspire feelings of pride and admiration from eager American fans across the globe. These shared emotions of, what Breward described as ‘anticipation and excitement’ are characteristic of both fashion and sport, and, when presented together in this event, evoked nationalist sentiment among American viewers.
The athletes’ patchwork roll-neck cardigans, emblazoned with the stars and stripes, the Olympic rings, and the iconic Polo Ralph Lauren logo, seemed both luxurious and comfortable, classic and modern. This sportswear aesthetic, according to Rebecca Arnold, is an ‘identifiably American form of dressing.’ Known for his fashionable yet active designs, Ralph Lauren has become an icon of America’s sportswear heritage, his clothing and logo were thus fitting choices for the Olympic Opening Ceremony uniforms. Celebrating modernity, glamour, and the ‘heroic, rationalized body,’ Team USA successfully combined sport and fashion to become a symbol of American national identity.
Arnold, R. (2009) The American Look: Fashion, Sportswear, and the Image of Women in 1930s and 1940s New York, New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd.
Breward, C. (2008) ‘Pure Gesture: Reflections on the Histories of Sport and Fashion’, in Breward, C. (ed.) Fashion v Sport, London: V&A Publishing.
Some of the most unexpected discoveries during the course of my research on Russian émigré ballet and the body c.1920-50 have been the personal photographs in dancers’ archives. Personal photographs, unlike the widely publicised media images, which typically feature the dancer in costume and attempt to restage a ballet’s choreography, are the snap-shots taken by a dancer’s family and friends. Within these latter images, it has been interesting to consider how far the dancer’s self-image, and possession of the learned fluid mannerisms acquired from ballet training, influenced her body image in unofficial snapshots.
The personal photographs of Tanaquil Le Clercq, an American dancer who became a protégé of the Russian émigré choreographer George Balanchine from 1940, when she won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet (SAB), reveal an experimental approach to body image and identity. Le Clercq, who had long tapering legs, a feline profile, and a playful, instinctive sense of musicality, embodied Balanchine’s ideal of an American ballerina.
Three distinctive genres emerge in Le Clercq’s 1940s photographs, which are stored at the Tanaquil Le Clercq Personal Archive at the New York City Ballet Archive in New York: the diligent American ballet student, the metropolitan ballet dancer, and the ingénue exploring her identity.
A series of Le Clercq in exuberant poses, reflective of a typical American dancer, were taken around 1945 by her mother Edith Le Clercq when the family were on vacation in Cape Cod. In one photograph, Le Clecq wears a long, full-skirted patterned dress with a white petticoat and executes a high arabesque on toe, with her arms extended wide at a diagonal. The discrepancy between her legs’ balletic stance and her free arms evoked the naturalist vitality and elevation that were common in official representations of American dancers in dance interest magazines. However in one image, the blurry thrust of a raised leg, and the downcast-eyed, parted-lipped expression of intense concentration, which are different from the dancers’ unmannered ease in media photographs, document more realistically the dancer at work. This unofficial image thus countered the critic Edwin Denby’s myth of American dancers as carefree ‘boys and girls in exuberant health who are doing pretty much what the charming animals do, and are as unconscious of their grace as they…’, with a portrayal of an ambitious dancer on a conscious mission of self-improvement.
A 1946-48 image of a pony-tailed Le Clercq in a black leotard was taken on the SAB’s Madison Avenue rooftop by her then boyfriend Job Saunders. Her weight is slightly forward, her knees are bent playfully and her head is tipped away and twisted to the side as she attempts to synchronise her trained body with the urban context of New York City. Here Le Clercq’s syncopated, sleek body posture reflects Balanchine’s own aesthetic in mid-1940s ballets such as The Four Temperaments (1946); however, her ballet-jazz improvisation on the ballet school’s roof also indicates an independent exploration of her physicality, both as a dancer and as a woman. Interestingly, the boundaries between dance-wear and everyday wear had become looser after 1943, when the New York sportswear designer Mildred Orrick introduced a leotard similar to Le Clercq’s, thus encouraging women to imbue a dancer’s sinuous mobility in their everyday body image. In light of ballet’s fashionability, Saunders’ image of Le Clercq on the roof, perhaps unconsciously, positioned her as a hyper-visible City style icon.
Fellow-dancer Patricia McBride’s 1944-5 photograph of a loose-haired Le Clercq, crouching in a black leotard and holding a round mirror that reflects her face, presents a more mysterious view of the dancer. The Polaroid frame, which crops Le Clercq’s body from both ends, provides a cloistered perspective, while the abundant wavy hair flowing down her back suggests a semi-erotic state of abandon and perhaps even evokes John Tenniel’s illustrations of Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871). Significantly, the fashion photographer Richard Avedon adopted the figure of Alice in a February 1947 issue of Junior Bazaar, where a modern version of Carroll’s protagonist undertakes a journey of self-realisation through adopting new fashions. While Avedon’s commercial imagery lacks the intimacy of Le Clercq’s, collectively the images imply that the sense of ludic self-discovery represented by an Alice figure was relevant to women’s fluctuating sense of identity in the 1940s – a decade in which women had to adjust to men’s absence during the war years and their reinvigorated presence in peace-time. In Le Clercq’s case especially the mirror could recall the ballet studio ritual, but it is also a poetic device that alludes to an unseen dimension within the subject. While McBride’s photograph in itself insufficiently explains the young dancers’ self-image, it implies that some aspects of identity were explored through fantasy in a girlish, coterie atmosphere. Interestingly, this dynamic mirrored that of the late 1940s Junior Bazaar photographer Lillian Bassman and her models, who would share their personal experiences and fantasies rather than engage in the camera seduction of photographic sittings dominated by male photographers. Additionally the sense of engaging with something that mattered to the sitter, evident in Mc Bride’s photograph, also applied to Bassman’s introspective soft focus images which portrayed women engaged in private reveries or rituals.
Although they vary in subject-matter and mood, collectively, Le Clercq’s personal photographs indicated that her sense of identity in the mid-1940s was plural and adolescent as she expressed Balanchine’s vision of the American ballerina alongside other more personal aspects of feminine identity. The parallels with contemporary fashion images in Le Clercq’s photographs position her within the collective of young American women who engaged with forming a public persona, whilst they simultaneously cultivated a personal self-image.
Denby, E. (1949) ‘Against Meaning in Ballet’, in Looking at the Dance, New York: Curtis Books.
I first discovered Francesca Woodman’s photographs whilst I was working at the company Phillips de Pury. I was sorting through some catalogues and came across the work, Self Portrait at Thirteen, Boulder, Colorado, 1972. I was struck by her age and the estimated price. Untitled, Rome, 1977-78 sold for $170, 500 on the 4th April 2012. Her self-awareness struck me as being immediately of our time. Both her playfulness with the camera and her seeming insistence to photograph herself held my gaze. As I paused to gather my thoughts, what also collapsed time and made me connect so viscerally with the photograph, was the medium of dress.
Here is an extract from an essay I wrote this year in Dr. Rebecca Arnold’s History of Dress MA. The extract discusses ‘After My Grandmothers Funeral’, a photograph that helps to communicate how Woodman’s understanding of fashion offers a narrative possibility to her images hereto unexplored.
“The cinematic qualities of the image were elucidated by the curator Lynne Cooke in the exhibition Ellipsis who celebrates connections between Woodman and the filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni. The term ‘ellipsis’ makes reference to an important formal device used in modernist film in which an element of film narrative which does not need to be shown or stated is removed from screen. Antonioni’s use of ellipsis is distinct in that he extended the use in order to mark moments of uncertainty in films such as L’Eclisse (1962) and L’Aventura (1960). Here, Woodman appears like an Antonioni heroine, her dress signals an awareness of fashion and the filmic qualities of the image exacerbate the fictional qualities of Woodman’s fashionable attire.
The image thus concedes to the cinematic device ellipsis that echoes the use of dress as creating an ambiguous narrative or missing link, caught between a protective covering and a simultaneous statement of a fragile interior state of mind. The etched pencil title, ‘After my grandmothers funeral’ tints the image with a ceremonial, ritualistic event, that is not present in the photograph. The fur coat encases Woodman in a way that is seems both protective and defensive perhaps embodying Woodman’s ambiguity towards Fashion as either an extension of thought or rationally separating dress and thought. Whilst the colour black evokes an interior consciousness, mimicking a solemn state of mourning on the outside, Woodman’s clothing suggests the sensory quality of touch.
Through this image dress becomes a mechanism for Woodman to reconfigure the narrative possibilities of objects. In her photographs concerning her grandmother, Woodman’s characteristic use of clothing as lining, becoming an extension of skin, is replaced by a more complex relationship to the clothing. Clothing takes on an element of agency itself. The objects embody her absent grandmother and rather than relishing in a characteristic blur, Woodman can be seen to archive the objects by integrating them into her own work and associating them with her own living body.
This essay tries to capture how Francesca loved fashion and little, if no critical consideration is given to her clothes. They add something to the images, and in part attracted me to her astounding body of work.”
‘The Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore’ exhibition at Somerset House caused a sensation. Victoria Sadler from the Huffington Post admired the construction of the show and celebrated the way Isabella ‘wore clothes’. Sadler recalled a feeling of optimism and commended the exhibition for its celebration of fashion as something that is ‘brave, emotive and innovative’. I first met one of its curators, Shonagh Marshall, a few years ago, in a funny little flat in East London, quite a world away from this meeting, in the foyer of Somerset House, at the entrance to ‘Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!’
The exhibition began with glass cabinets filled with personal albums and memorabilia, showing where Isabella Blow had grown up. A small video was shown of Blow leafing through a family album. There were photographs of her striking wedding day outfit and the outfit she had worn to Andy Warhol’s funeral. Immediately, there was a sense that her private life was inextricably linked to her public life, and her fashion sense courted this attention whilst retaining an intensely personal declaration of her own character.
Isabella Blow’s style and the remaining material clothes bear the imprints of a well-lived life. Beginning with family, the exhibition moved onto the definitive collaborative friendships that Isabella made throughout her career.
As we moved through the exhibition, Shonagh pointed out details that I had missed the first time around; a lock of hair that had been sewn into the back of an Alexander McQueen dress provided evidence of Blow and Mc Queen’s shared interest in martyrdom and relics. Blow had deeply loved Joan of Arc and the inspiration behind this particular Mc Queen collection was Jack the Ripper. The worn trail of a dress in the second room, a ‘nightmare’ for dress restorers to cope with, was a fascinating garment that managed to stay in the show. The stains and the tears linked to some of the theory that we have been reading on the Courtauld History of Dress MA, such as Iris Marion’s essay ‘Women Recovering Our Clothes’ (2005) and Lisa Cohen’s exploration of ‘the seam’ in her essay ‘Frock Consciousness’ (1999). Through its wear and imperfections, the dress spoke to the senses and contributed, along with the fragmented mannequins designed by Shona Heath, to the feel of a living garment.
Shonagh’s innate and encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history, which she shared in a lively and memorable manner, reminded me of our tutor, Dr Rebecca Arnold. Listening to Shonagh’s modesty about the most innovative parts of the exhibition was particularly inspiring. She created a sense in which it was, as if by luck, that the original footage of the various fashion shows from the Royal College of Art, seen in the second room, had been displayed. This was an ingenious part of the exhibition that allowed the viewer to feel the pulse of fashion at the time when Isabella was working. In many ways, Shonagh’s innovative approach to fashion curation created parallels between Shonagh and Isabella, something crucial, perhaps, for a curator to feel whilst making a show in someone else’s honour. Isabella’s own drive to bring art school graduates into contact with established institutions was matched by the introduction of art school film footage into the vicinity of the established institution of Somerset House and more broadly, the museum itself. Blow took Hussein Chayalan’s collection, featured in the show, in black bin bags to the boutique Browns on South Molton Street, insisting that they display his work. The exhibition itself was polished and sophisticated, both conceptually and literally. But what struck me most was that it stemmed from working directly with Isabella’s clothes, archiving them for another formidable character, Daphne Guiness. It was through this level of personal contact and interest that the idea for the exhibition had emerged. Indeed, Shonagh described archiving Isabella’s clothes from black bin bags, proof that the makeshift mentality of Isabella still lives on. In the fourth part of the exhibition, Julia (also on the Courtauld History of Dress MA) noted three of the same shoe, which suggested evidence of a lost shoe. Aware of our own outfits, we admired Shonagh Marshall’s heels, to which she responded that dealing with such a fashionable subject, she could hear Isabella asking her, ‘why are you not in heels today?’
As we moved through to Phillip Treacey’s impressive hat display, Shonagh explained how helpful Treacey had been, both in terms of his designs and the time he had spent hanging them. The seamless links between the private and professional were particularly evident in the bright pink phone and letters, signed by Isabella with a kiss. The following room was a moving celebration of Isabella’s clothes. The mannequins were in positions modeled on Blow’s gait and created a moving impression of the various facets of her personality. The faces were painted with differing make up palettes and some were displayed behind plastic visors to insist they were not reconstructions of Blow per se, but designed to give an effect. The outfits had been studied in correlation to press photographs to ensure accuracy.
As we moved back into the main room to admire the parachute cloak and line of beautiful dresses, Shonagh’s heel became caught in a wooden plank and she nearly went flying. In light of Blow’s insistence on the self-expressive qualities of fashion, often at the cost of function, it was a brilliant homage to Isabella herself, as we were standing just meters away from her three shoes, one probably lost to a similar fate.
Finally, Shonagh pointed out a grey Julian McDonald dress that was very rare because of its colour, cut and the year that it was made. It brought the dress to life and this is something I have definitely learnt through studying with Rebecca. Both Shonagh and Rebecca seem to make the underappreciated visible once again.
Following this fascinating tour, I caught up with Shonagh to ask her a few questions:
How does this project link to some of the other projects you have been involved with?
Prior to my position at Somerset House I archived the Isabella Blow Collection for The Honourable Daphne Guinness after she purchased the collection by private sale from Christies. After such a close bond with the objects in the collection it was an inspired opportunity to be able to bring the clothing to life in exhibition format. The solitary, private nature of archival work is so different to the curatorial role which is a public presentation of the clothing, with a constructed, informed narrative. Due to my previous role and my knowledge of the collection I was invited to co-curate the exhibition, with Alistair O’Neill as Curator, this was a wonderful collaboration in that Alistair has so much experience and the most fantastic constructions of themes and narrative whereas my focus within the exhibition was on the objects and where each fitted into the overarching exhibition journey.
The curatorial moments that were particularly inspired felt like the Royal College of Art footage and the editorial magazine pages from the archives. Do you feel like archives played a particularly important role in this exhibition?
On a personal note I do because of my relationship with the Isabella Blow Collection archive. The archive generally is becoming more visible, with many fashion houses and brands realising the importance in retaining their heritage. However it wasn’t a conscious decision throughout the exhibition to use loans from archives they were merely the places where this footage was held. Perhaps the current climate makes visitors more aware to consider where this pieces is stored and held, taking more interest in the archive that has loaned the object. However on a much more practical note, permanent museum collections such as the V&A or the Museum of London require around a year or more notice on loan requests– the total time to prepare the exhibition was just under a year (from research time and build).
You studied Fashion History and Theory with Dr Rebecca Arnold at Central Saint Martins. In what ways did that course shape your approach to your working practice now?
I went to study Fashion History and Theory at Central Saint Martins with Rebecca at the age of 18. Upon starting I had absolutely no knowledge of fashion history and after three years left with a love for academic approach to fashion. This as a grounding gave me such a lot, Rebecca has such passion for the subject this lead to a grounding in how to use research methodologies to collate primary research to discuss fashion in an academic voice. It was really exciting to have stumbled upon a course at 18 which has shaped my career so significantly, however the peers I met during that time remain great friends and they also shape working practice through discussion and sharing of ideas.
Do you think having an academic understanding of fashion benefits your working practice today?
Absolutely and I am very mindful to retain the rigour of an academic approach to curatorial practice. I feel coming from a background in BA Fashion History and Theory has given me the tools to approach subjects in this way and my studying MA Fashion Curation the theories surrounding curatorial practice. Exhibitions can be a really wonderful mix of academic and visual approaches.
And after such a fantastic exhibition, what are your plans for the future?
I am a curator at Somerset House so will continue to work on projects here. I however would like to possibly curate exhibitions of a smaller nature, perhaps a set of installations throughout the buildings.
The House of Schiaparelli was the new name during Paris couture fashion week 2014. In 1926, Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) opened her business at 21 Place Vendôme and closed again on 13 December 1954. In 2007, Diego Della Valle, president and owner of the Italian leather goods company Tod’s, acquired the rights to Schiaparelli’s name and archives. The re-inauguration of her label is thus not a matter of continuation but rather an awakening of her legacy after a nearly 60-year long sleep. Schiaparelli is remembered for making fashion history between the two World Wars and for her intriguing collaborations with surrealist artists like Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. She introduced the idea of themed collections, staged runway shows as entertainment, and used bizarre aspects of adornment like “fantasy” buttons and exotic furs, such as monkey. Despite their unmistakable avant-garde character, her designs never became mere caricatures or translations of avant-garde art into clothing, but remained both sellable and wearable. The new House builds upon the significance of Schiaparelli’s life history and legacy. Creative director Marco Zanini was appointed to design the first couture collection for the House since 1954. In his nineteen looks, the designer clearly looked at the archives and played with the Schiaparelli codes: vivid and graphic prints showed her sense of colour, and silhouettes were elaborately embroidered. The more obvious references to Schiaparelli’s iconic thirties designs – like lobsters and shoe hats – were absent. The show took its audience’s imagination on a journey through different times, places, and emotions. The new Schiaparelli woman had a variety of different faces, tempers and characters. As a whole, the show was an eclectic collage of memories from the past and the present. Zanini’s ambiguous tale triggered curiosity for the next chapter of Schiaparelli’s story in our era.