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.