As it nears the end of term, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Violet discusses James Barnor, the Swinging Sixties, and photography as a means of resistance.
What is your dissertation about?
I wrote my dissertation on British-Ghanaian photographer James Barnor and his capturing of Black Britain in the 1960s. I first came across his work in February when I saw his image Wedding Guests (below) on Pinterest. I was struck by the innate poise of the two female subjects, who in their meticulous attire and polished appearance, are the epitome of 1960s cosmopolitan glamour. I love the quietly revolutionary quality of his images. Whilst they are not politically or racially charged on the surface, in their depiction of everyday people, posing amongst the streets of London, they would have proved extremely powerful in both contemporary and post-colonial contexts. There is a retrospective of his work on at the Serpentine Gallery at the moment. Very fortuitously, it opened two weeks before my dissertation was due. It was incredibly exciting to see his images in the flesh. The show has been really beautifully curated, illuminating the multi-dimensionality of Barnor’s work through a diverse range of images from his six-decade career.
Who is your favourite designer?
Ossie Clark. I love the elegant cut, drape and flow of his pieces. Born in Liverpool in 1942, Clark quickly became known as a pioneer of London’s Swinging Sixties cultural revolution. His designs offered a more romantic alternative to Mary Quant’s short hemlines, block colours and geometric prints. I came across a silk co-ord designed by him in a vintage boutique on the Portobello Road a couple of weeks ago. Consisting of a pair of billowing high-waisted trousers and a short-sleeved Peter Pan collar top, cinched in by a silk sash at the waist, it is my dream ensemble. The cut and fit are far superior to any item of clothing that I have ever worn. Perfectly proportioned and meticulously tailored around the waist and shoulders, I feel as if it was made for me. Clark really understood the female form. My dream is to become a collector of his pieces.
Favourite dress history photograph?
This is a tough question as I have so many. But with regard to dress, the image which I find myself coming back to is the photograph Neil Kenlock took of Olive Morris in 1973. Morris was a political activist and community leader, known for the part she played in the Squatters Movement and her founding of the Brixton Black Women’s Group in 1973. Very sadly, she died aged 27, but in her short life, she achieved an incredible amount. In this image, there is a real sense of her presence as an individual. In faux jacket, worn jeans and assortment of bangles, she appears confident and at ease. It possesses a snapshot quality with the viewer a voyeur looking in at an intimate moment in this remarkable woman’s life. She smokes a cigarette as she huddles by the electric radiator to keep warm. It seems like there is an interaction between her and Kenlock as she beams leaning slightly towards the camera. I love the idea of photography being a collaborative venture between the subject and photographer, with the viewer is privy to the intimacy of their relationship.
What is your favourite thing that you’ve written/worked on/researched this year?
In the first semester, I was introduced to the concept of photography as a means of resistance, and within this, the role clothing has played as a means to self-fashioning identities for oppressed groups within society. This fuelled an interest in Stuart Hall’s ‘politics of representation’ which I have applied to different periods and in varying contexts throughout the year. My first essay was on Harlem Renaissance portraiture and how the representational power of the genre was harnessed by various artists of the period to illuminate the complexity and multi-dimensionality of being African American at this time. I was particularly drawn to James VanDerZee’s studio portraits of glamorous young Harmelites. Posing in elegant 1920s clothing against elaborate backdrops, they drew together the different fragments of their diasporic identity in one visual narrative. I’m fascinated by the concept of the tiniest sartorial details having the most significant meaning to the individual and how this can translate to the outside eye.
Carol Tulloch, The Birth of Cool (London: Bloomsbury) 2016
During the wintery months of 1969, something unusual happened in the Cornish seaside village of St. Agnes. That is, a group of eccentric, unemployed, and, crucially, strangely dressed ‘beatniks’ arrived and began living in the off-season holiday cottages. This occurrence was notable enough to warrant coverage by local television station Westward Television. In this twelve-minute piece of black and white archival footage, Del Cooper interviews both the ‘suspicious’ local residents and the ‘unconventional’ beatniks, capturing a unique moment of fashion microhistory.
Before delving into analysis, it is important to first set this film in a temporal and geographic context. Alternative style was not necessarily new: indeed, by 1969, a variety of subcultural styles and countercultural thought existed in the UK. Since the mid-1950s, Jazz Fiends, Beatniks and West End Boys, stylistically spearheaded by West Indian immigrants, challenged the constrictive post-war aesthetic of adulthood. In the 1960s, Mods and Skinheads similarly used their dress to be socially disruptive. And while Beatniks are not as readily associated with 1960s subculture as Mods, in June 1965, beat poet Allen Ginsberg nevertheless drew a crowd of 7,000 to his four-hour-long poetry reading.Yet, while counterculture and alternative style was a real possibility in this era, visible street style was often limited to London and other cultural hubs. So, when a group of fashionably long-haired Beatniks arrived in a village at the extremity of southwestern England, they signified something new, and disrupted the social ‘norm’.
Analysing this film through the lens of dress and fashion, therefore, is extremely valuable. It is the Beatniks’ dress that is the main disturbance to St. Agnes. Their unusual and sometimes flamboyant style is a stark juxtaposition against the conservative villagers and the local television reporter. This non-fiction film is illustrative of an important representation of fashion on a micro-level, separate to the world of high fashion and London.
If, as fashion scholar Carlo Marco Belfanti argues, fashion is defined by ‘an increasing passion for change and an insatiable search for novelty’, there is nothing more novel than the juxtaposition of a trendy subcultural dress with an underpopulated tourist destination in winter. Accordingly, the film opens with a static shot of Del Cooper standing against a backdrop of usual activity in St. Agnes. He seems to embody the orthodox, respectable and masculine. His grey hair is cut short and only slightly windswept, and he is dressed conservatively in a monochrome polo-neck jumper and clean-cut wool jacket. Behind him, a woman in a headscarf exits Webb’s Store, and a Jacob’s van pulls up across the road to unload a delivery of cream crackers. This scene of total normalcy, however, is soon unsettled by subversive dress. As the camera pans right, the viewer’s eye is drawn to a group of women and men making their way through the village. They are wearing loose-fitting, layered garments, accessorised with patterned scarves and a random assortment of hats; all of them with genderbending long hair. At this moment, Cooper, addressing the camera, answers the unspoken question: ‘Well, of course, it all depends on what you mean by Beatniks. If you mean young people with long hair and rather unconventional clothes, then the Beatniks are here, in St. Agnes, right now.’ A group who have fashioned themselves so conspicuously, their desire for novelty and change is palpable.
It is important to note Del Cooper’s definition of ‘Beatnik’. There are only two elements of this definition: their novel clothing and their long hair. While their actual behaviour is mentioned in the film – sharing money and belongings, strict vegetarianism, and inclination to burn joss-sticks in the local pubs – it is their dress that makes them Beatniks, including their decision to grow their hair long, a body modification that clearly communicates to other human beings that they are unconventional.
As the camera follows the Beatniks through the village, a man and a woman lead the group, five or six paces ahead. The man wears dark, flared jeans, pointed heeled boots, and a sparsely buttoned-up patterned shirt over a ruffled scarf. A cropped fur coat shrouds this outfit, that he wears undone with his hands resting casually in the pockets. His hair is slightly longer than shoulder length, accessorised by an askew cowboy-style hat. The woman is casually dressed in all black: a loose-fitting dress that reaches her ankles and leather boots. Over this, she wears an oversized, lightweight jacket and a carelessly knotted scarf around her neck. Her long hair flows behind her as she walks.
Following behind them are six more long-haired members of the group. Another woman in all black pushes a pram while four men walk alongside her, all in flared trousers and casual shoes. Their winter coats are a trench coat with the belt hanging loose at the back, a hooded duffle, and two double-breasted peacoats, respectively. One man wears a beret, while another wears a Russian Cossack-style fur hat, and they have on a hodgepodge of scarves. Another woman brings up the rear, dressed in a more masculine style, with loose-fitting trousers, a shirt, and a chunky waistcoat. She does not wear her coat but drags it along in her left hand, with a lit cigarette in her right.
What about these people’s dress draws them together? They are undoubtedly a collective, with loose and layered flares, long hair, and patterned scarves. Crucially, these clothes must be thrown on their bodies carelessly, unbuttoned, with pockets to rest the hands. Casualness defines this style tribe. Yet their clothes incorporate a range of cuts, styles, and materials, from paisley cotton scarves to striped woollen scarves, from fur coats to duffel coats – a nod to the growing interest in second-hand clothing in the late 1960s. This exemplifies the paradox at the heart of fashion. As Sheila Cliffe has put it, ‘humans have a need to be both a member of a group, which provides security and also distinguish themselves from the group and assert their individuality’. This is highlighted through the community’s differences in dress and fashioning themselves – they accessorise with individual styles of hat, scarf, and sometimes coat.
This casual, loose, and layered style would not be nearly as striking if it were not juxtaposed with the relatively plain and certainly traditional style exhibited by the long-term residents of St. Agnes. Yet, as the film begins to interview the locals, it is clear that the exhibition of dress is of far less importance to the filmmaker. While the camera angles ensured to include plenty of full-body shots of the unusual Beatnik outfits, the shots of the interviewees are only static close-ups. And to a degree, this is understandable: if fashion is novel, in constant change, and both individual and group-based, the St. Agnes citizens are not particularly fashionable.
Six different locals are interviewed, and either express distaste or indifference to the unorthodox new arrivals. In a few minutes, viewers meet a range of characters: a woman, without make-up, her white hair tucked into a dark fur pillbox hat, and a paisley scarf knotted around her neck; a middle-aged man in a wool coat and trilby hat; a young woman, bare-faced with a messy bob haircut; a woman with dark hair tied up in a loose bun, both make-up and accessory free; an old lady in a fur bonnet; a local councillor with neat curls and cats-eye spectacles; and a man in a stiff-collared coat, white shirt and tie. Dress, at its most fundamental, can signify ambivalences inherent in humans. Here, the functional and stylish – but not particularly trendy – fur hats help to signify a woman’s age. Likewise, the local councillor’s well-ordered spectacles and hair signify her – relatively – public-facing occupation. The man in a coat, shirt and tie suggests professionality. Most fundamentally, the men have short hair while the women have long. Therefore, while not everyone self-fashions to be novel, trendy, or individual, the interviews with the Cornish people signify that on some level, everyone self-fashions to reveal a subconscious element of themselves.
As the film moves to interview the Beatniks, however, deeper elements of the inner self are visually expressed. As Daniel Miller argues, dress can often be used ‘as an appropriate exploration of who one really is’. The television reporter, Cooper, seems quite aware of this innate connection. While interviewing Toni, a single mother who wears a string of sparse beads wrapped around her neck twice, reminiscent of hippie love-beads, and a black button-down blouse with delicate embroidery and slightly puffed sleeves, he asks, ‘The people of St. Agnes are very suspicious of you because you’re very unconventional in your dress. Are you also unconventional in your morals?’.
Additionally, the non-fiction news segment shows snippets of the travelling artists undertaking their crafts and passions. We see people engraving slates, painting, forging jewellery, and playing music. And, in line with Miller’s theory, each person’s dress seems to reflect their own inner talent. The jewellery makers wear thick metal rings on nearly every finger, and the performer dresses the most flamboyantly, in a beret, with long hair and white-rimmed sunglasses – impractically worn indoors. Not only do these accessories help these artists with their self-expression, but they also embody a further definition of fashion. That is, prioritising form over function. It is certainly not practical to wear so many rings, nor are sunglasses fulfilling a practical function when worn indoors. These Beatniks are using dress and accessories purely to portray themselves how they desire.
And as the short film comes to a close, an atmospheric shot pans out of shabbily, artistically dressed Beatniks, listening to a poem being read aloud against the crashing waves of Cornwall. Miller’s concluding argument seems apt: a study of clothing should evoke feelings, both tactile and emotional. Perhaps, then, in the bitter winter air, their layered outfits, hats and scarves are keeping them warm in the wintery air. Or perhaps a breeze blows right through the loose-fitting dresses. Perhaps their chunky, hand-knitted woollen jumpers are itchy. Perhaps they enjoy feeling the sea breeze in their long hair.
The film ends, panning in on the waves after Del Cooper makes his closing statement:
What bothers the 4,000 odd residents of this charming, attractive and rather conventional seaside village is that the community with unconventional clothes and rather unorthodox ways will, as they put it, give the village a bad name and drive away the holiday visitors. They want them to go. But whether you call them free-thinking artists, Beatniks, or the vanguard of a new movement to make England great again, they’re here to stay. And St. Agnes will never ever be quite the same again.
Here, the importance of fashion and dress is notable: this strangely dressed yet fashionable community has altered the microhistory of St. Agnes.
By Kathryn Reed
A Beatnik Community in St Agnes. Presented by Del Cooper. BFI (South West Film & Television Archive), 1969. https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-a-beatnik-community-in-st-agnes-1969-online
Arnold, Rebecca, Fashion: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2009)
Belfanti, Carlo Marco, ‘Was Fashion a European Invention?’ in Journal of Global History 3 (2008)
Cliffe, Sheila, ‘Think Fashion or Tradition?’, The Social Life of Kimono: Japanese Fashion Past and Present. (London, 2018)
Davis, Fred, Fashion, Culture and Identity (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995)
Donnelly, Mark, ‘Wholly Communion: Truths, Histories, and the Albert Hall Poetry Reading’, Journal of Cinema and Media 52 1 (2011), pp. 128-140
Eicher, Joanne B., and Roach-Higgins, Mary Ellen, ‘Definition and Classification of Dress,’ in Ruth Barnes and Joanne B. Eicher, Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning in Cultural Contexts (Oxford, 1993)
Miller, Daniel, ‘Why Clothing Is Not Superficial,’ in Stuff (Cambridge: Polity, 2010)
Tulloch, Carol, ‘Rebel Without a Pause: Black Street Style & Black Designers’ in Juliet Ash and Elizabeth Wilson (eds.) Chic Thrills: A Fashion Reader (Berkeley, 1993)
Welters, Linda, ‘The Beat Generation Subcultural Style’, in Linda Welters and Patricia A. Cunningham (eds.) Twentieth Century American Fashion (London, 2005)
After being shut for months due to lockdown, galleries in the UK have finally reopened their doors to visitors. Amongst a plethora of ‘must-see’ shows, the Serpentine Gallery’s highly anticipated James Barnor retrospective is opening to the public this Thursday. Exhibiting a selection of iconic images taken by the Ghanaian photographer during his six-decade career, it aims to highlight his role as a pioneering figure within modern photography.
Now ninety-two and living in the UK, Barnor recalls how he crossed continents and genres to further his knowledge of photography. As a studio photographer and photojournalist, he captured Ghana on the cusp of independence in the 1950s. He later introduced colour photography to the nation in the 1970s. In between these two pivotal chapters of his career, he moved to London, where he documented the city’s transformation into a multicultural metropolis in the post-war era. Working as a documentary and fashion photographer, he harnessed the power of photography to illuminate the multidimensionality of Black experience in Britain in the 1960s.
In order to comprehend the power of Barnor’s images and his skill as a photographer, it is important to first understand the complex time he was living in. During the 1950s and 1960s, Britain was experiencing a wave of post-war migration as a result of the 1948 British Nationality Act, which granted people in the Commonwealth full rights to British Citizenship. Whilst this marked a watershed moment in the formation of Black Britain, it was also a dark chapter in the nation’s history with racism inherent in the media, politics and society-at-large. This racial intolerance culminated in the Notting Hill Riots of 1958, during which Black people were targeted in violent attacks by white mobs. In the political sphere, various acts were introduced throughout the 1960s which aimed to limit citizenship rights. It was against this backdrop that Barnor worked as a photographer, producing images which were not overtly politically or racially charged in nature, yet prove incredibly impactful given the socio-political landscape of the period.
Commissioned by Drum, the South African Anti-Apartheid journal, he photographed Black models engaging with the latest fashions in the streets of London. These were circulated internationally and have come to be known as pioneering images of Black beauty. Presenting a multi-national cohort of Black women against iconic British backdrops such as post boxes, telephone boxes and Underground signs, he visually manifested the merging of different cultures in post-war Britain. Whether he was photographing Erlin Ibreck leaning against a Jaguar in Kilburn, Marie Hallowi feeding birds in Trafalgar Square, or Mike Eghan leaping off the fountain at Piccadilly Circus, Barnor aimed to capture his subject’s essence and individuality at a time when Black Britain was triumphantly coming into being against a challenging socio-political backdrop.
Barnor also photographed his friend’s weddings, christenings and parties. Taken for family albums, these documentary images were intended not for public consumption nor to make a political statement about racism or marginality, but rather to capture key milestones within the multicultural communities which were emerging in Britain at this time. Style was a tool of social and cultural transformation for Barnor’s subjects. Inspired by various factors such as Western culture, urban dress, group identity, African style and gender ideals, they harnessed the communicative power of clothing to visually manifest their own perspective of what constituted being Black and British at that time. Meticulously dressed, they exude a sense of joy and self-assurance as they become part of the social fabric of multicultural Britain.
Barnor’s images of London make up the second of three sections at the Serpentine exhibition. The first section is dedicated to portraits he took in his studio, EverYoung, in Accra during the 1950s, as well as his journalistic photographs of Ghanaian independence. The third and final section is made up of colour photographs taken in post-colonial Ghana on his return from Britain in the 1970s. What unites these three sections is a sense of joy and community. Barnor saw photography as a collaborative venture between the photographer and subject, which created a sense of intimacy. His images of both Ghana and Britain are powerful visual testaments of societies in transition during the latter half of the twentieth century.
By Violet Caldecott
Campt, Tina M., Image Matters, Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe (Duke University Press: Durham and London), 2012
Hall, Stuart, ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’, 1990, in Paul Gilroy and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Selected Writings on Race and Difference, Stuart Hall (Duke University Press: Durham and London), 2021
Olusoga, David, Black and British, A Forgotten History (Pan Macmillian London), 2017
Ed. Mussai, Renée, James Barnor, Ever Young (Autograph ABP: London) 2015
Park, Rianna Jade, How James Barnor’s Photographs Became Symbols of Black Glamour, Aperture, issue 242, New York, March 2021 (Aperture Foundation Inc: London) 2021
As the year winds down, I thought I would let my grandmother do the writing in one of my final blog posts, as I continue to decompress after a charged summer term (read: dissertation season).
Ann was teaching at a Department of Defence school in Okinawa—her first teaching job overseas—in the 1960s when she met my grandfather. My mother was born in 1970, and they lived in Japan for another couple of years before moving to Hawaii and, eventually, Bakersfield, California.
I never knew my grandfather, so I grew up with photographs—both of him and by him. I also grew up with inherited memories and borrowed relics from my family’s time in Japan: a cloud-soft white kimono I wore for one of my first Halloween nights; a doll in a glass case with a cup of water; my mom’s tiny tabi socks that I remember once fitting me; the creaking snick of kimono closet doors opening and closing…
These dress-centric recollections are selected from a series of emails my grandmother sent me in early 2016, when I requested: ‘Tell me about Japan.’ The photos come from the albums upon albums stored in bookshelves and a great wooden chest at my grandma’s house in Bakersfield.
I believe my first official date with Bill was to a tea house; don’t remember details but we talked for hours. Funny what the brain chooses to remember. I remember wearing a red lightweight wool outfit. It was a pleated skirt with an attached camisole and over it a loose, long sleeved matching top that buttoned down the back. Wish I had it now!
We were there for a year. While there, I had some clothes made. I had grown up with homemade clothes, so store-bought ones were a treat. And there I was, wanting handmade clothes again. I recall a coral dress (wool again) with a fitted matching jacket and a brownish one with silvery-looking embroidery. Low waisted and slightly gathered. I would still like that one. I loved sending Mother stuff. I had a brown coat with a fur collar made for her, among other things. I have one of the fur hats she sent her mother, as well as a wool coat that I wear in the winter.
Two times our little convertible Datsun Fair Lady was stolen. Police found it both times. First time, somewhere outside Yokohama, abandoned in a rice paddy; and the second time, on a side street in Yokohama. Guess they ran out of gas after joy riding. It WAS cute!
We frequented Motomachi (name of a short street) often. There was a sushi bar that was a favourite and at the other end was a German restaurant that served the tastiest borscht; and when it went out of business, we were disappointed. Also on that street was a clothing store. I remember buying two long wraparound quilted skirts that were warm and I liked them.
I loved shopping in Japan. Not just for the items but the manner of wrapping so beautifully in a furoshiki (fabric wrapping). In the large department stores, there would be a greeter (I recall only women) at the foot of the escalator to welcome you as you were about to ascend. Mind you, this was in the sixties. I don’t know how things are now.
My friend Sally and I modelled together. Crazy time. She was bisexual and wanted to find a lesbian bar. Keep in mind that I spoke hardly any Japanese at that time and she spoke even less. So I am not sure we even had the right word for lesbian. Anyway, winter time after we had had a modelling assignment was dark. Set off in a taxi to find this bar. Probably we were in Shinjuku (large area of Tokyo) in the Golden Gai District (known for its architecture, little bars crammed together upstairs and down—favourite hangout for artists). We felt very adventurous and very nervous. We would go into one and ask where we might find a lesbian bar, and we’d get a response that they either didn’t know or didn’t understand us—or they’d direct us to another place. Finally we went into one and inquired and we were pointed to upstairs. Now upstairs might have been a fine place to go; but not knowing what was really upstairs, we left, and caught the train to Yokohama. (I never drove to Tokyo. Always took the train.)
Speaking of Sally—we both worked for the Patricia Charm Modelling Agency, the only foreign modelling agency in Tokyo at that time. She took a percentage of whatever we were paid, don’t remember what. Sally felt she took too much and suggested we freelance. When we told Patricia our plans, she said she would blacklist us. Well, it wasn’t that I was gorgeous; but the Japanese photographers liked me because I was friendly and attempted to learn their language. So I received several job offers right away. Then they would start canceling on me. Indeed Patricia did what she said. Really okay because not too long after that I became pregnant and became all wrapped up in that.
I will be at home in Los Angeles for a few weeks later this summer, and amongst the few things I have planned—a bal des victimes dinner party, driving lessons, days at the beach—a trip to Bakersfield definitely figures, when these photos will be unearthed and put into motion once more.
*All photographs belong to the author and her family.
Unobtrusively nestled into the Sala Rekalde’s building in the city center of Bilbao, Spain, the largest career spanning retrospective of American photographer Bruce Davidson left its mark on this artistically rich gem of a city. Comprised of over 200 prints shot primarily in black and white, Davidson’s work was exhibited in various rooms with 16 themes, each accompanied by display cases in the center of each room with magazine and newspaper printings with photographs from Davidson’s career.
The experience of witnessing Davidson’s photographs in person was truly enchanting. The prints are poignant and evocative, and convey a stronger sense of Davidson’s vision that cannot simply be replicated on a screen. The way the light in the building reflected off each glossy surface of the photograph, and the details and movement captured in each shot left the viewer with a visceral and emotional reaction to Davidson’s work.
Spanning the duration of his career, the retrospective highlighted some of Davidson’s most famous series from the 1960s, including Brooklyn Gang, East 100th Street, and photographs from the Civil Rights Movement.
The retrospective also included images from Davidson’s travels to the U.K. during the 1960s, with photographs from London, Scotland, Wales, and Yorkshire. Currently residing in London, these images were particularly exciting to see, as Davidson captured an experience of what it was like to live in these cities 60 years ago.
The reason behind my trip to Bilbao to see the retrospective was specifically for Davidson’s Subway photographs from 1980, the topic of my dissertation. The exhibition displayed early photographs of the series which were taken in black and white, as opposed to the majority color images I explored in my dissertation. Seeing the photographs first hand in conversation with and situated within Davidson’s career was an invaluable experience, and extremely beneficial towards my research.
The exhibition concluded with photographs Davidson took in Southern California between 2008-2013, which were particularly evocative personally, having grown up in Los Angeles. He captured the essence of Los Angeles through his depiction of beaches, high-rise buildings, palm trees, and traffic, which evoked a sense of home and nostalgia that concluded the retrospective on a perfect note.
Readdressing Passivity in 1960’s Civil Rights Photographs through Dress
What led you to choose this subject?
I was inspired to write about the idea of protest wear in relation to the black body after seeing the King in New York exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. I became quite fascinated by the idea of protest buttons after seeing Benedict J. Fernandez’s Photograph from a Memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. in Central Park from April 5, 1968 on view. There is exhaustive scholarship on the Civil Rights Movement and for that reason my main objective in my dissertation was to find a new angle of viewing civil rights photographs that was not reductive or contrived. Reading civil rights photographs through dress and both individual and collective dress practice in moments of protest proved to be an interesting way of critiquing the reading of the black body as being passive or docile in the face of white-aggressive as reading it as an active embodiment of resistance.
Favorite book/article you’ve read for your dissertation so far and why?
My favorite book that I have read for my dissertation has been bell hook’s Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992). The way in which hooks deconstructs and provides alternative ways of viewing blackness really helped push me to look at the images used in my dissertation in different ways. My second favorite read would have to be Sharon Sliwinki’s Dreaming in Dark Times: Six Exercises in Political Thought (2017) because I thought it was so interesting how she aligned dreaming and more specifically dream-work as a radical political action that could be situated within the context of the social sphere.
Favorite image/object in your dissertation and why?
My favorite image I wrote about is a photograph of the Washington Monument and part of the United States flag reflected in sunglasses of a young boy called Austin Clinton Brown from the March on Washington in August of 1963. I think the image is quite powerful in that it addresses the idea that the American dream is an illusion in the way that these symbols of American freedom are distorted and warped on the reflective surface of the young boy’s sunglasses.
Favorite place to work?
Hands down, my favorite place to work is the Gallery Café in Bethnal Green. It is a vegetarian and vegan café with both indoor and outdoor seating with lots of natural light and great music. I have spent many days work there and they have the most delicious “loaded” vegan chili fries.
So far, it is ‘Movement in Metal: The Representation of Paco Rabanne’s 1960s Fashion Designs’
What led you to choose this subject?
My virtual exhibition was about late 1960s minimalist sculpture in relation to fashion. One of my exhibits was a metal ‘sound sculpture’ robe made by the Baschet Brothers for the 1966 film Who are You, Polly Maggoo? I became interested in how the models moved in this uncomfortable metal dress, which eventually drew me to Paco Rabanne and his metal dress creations from the late 1960s. In 1966, Rabanne presented a collection titled ‘Twelve Unwearable Dresses in Contemporary Materials’ at the Georges V Hotel in Paris, which I will discuss further in my dissertation.
Favorite book/article you’ve read for your dissertation so far and why?
I enjoyed reading Jane Pavitt’s Fear and Fashion In The Cold War (V&A, 2008). Pavitt discusses late 1960s avant-garde and space-age fashions, stating the reasons why designers and wearers chose to make such statements in what was a politically turbulent time. The book also features many entertaining photographs of strange space-age costumes.
Favorite image/object in your dissertation and why?
I found an advertisement in the January 1967 issue of British Vogue for Goddard’s ‘Long Term Silver Polish’. In the photograph, a model wears a Rabanne style metal disc dress, and the advert explains the polish’s use for the dress. It is interesting to see the connection between ‘traditional’ metal surfaces and Rabanne’s style of dresses, and also imagine the mixed attitudes towards them during this period.
Favorite place to work?
The National Art Library at the V&A is beautiful, and I like that it isn’t too overwhelmingly big.
On February 27, the MA class journeyed to Greenwich Village in New York City to visit the Parsons School of Design Archive. Upon arrival, we were left to explore boxes and folders overflowing with sketches of women’s wear between the 1920s and 1960s. Some of the sketches were rather minimal, a few fleeting lines drawn with pastel on tracing paper, while others were more detailed pencil on paper drawings. Our favorites as a class were Parsons’ extensive collection of Claire McCardell sketches, and one specific sketch with corresponding advertisement of Tom Brigance swimwear.
Tom Brigance, an American designer specializing in women’s sportswear, was a house designer for Lord & Taylor. Illustrated by Dorothy Hood, this particular sketch from 1968 advertised his In The Beach Scene line, and features a bikini and backless swim tunic. Hood gracefully captures the nylon fabric and gingham-like colorful print of Brigance’s swimsuits, and creates a whimsical beachfront scene. Our class was fascinated by this illustration board, because it included the handwritten notes of the copywriters or printers for this campaign. “Drop all blue guides,” and “see overlay for type position and handling,” along with notes on how to print Hood’s name within the illustration, can be seen written onto the advertising board.
Our class then all audibly gasped when we found that Parsons also had the corresponding final printed product. This was particularly interesting and exciting, because we were able to see the entire thought process—from the fashion illustration and notes to the final advertisement. The print advertises the two swim pieces, their prices, and an opportunity to meet the designer Tom Brigance at Lord & Taylor the following day.
In December 1965 David Lean’s epic adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago was released. Doctor Zhivago is the story of Yuri Zhivago, a physician in Russia, and the personal and political upheaval he experiences during the Russian Revolution. Phyllis Dalton’s lush costumes not only won her an academy award, but also spurred a host of new fashion trends. The looks of Julie Christie, who played Zhivago’s mistress Lara, and Geraldine Chaplin, who played Zhivago’s wife Tonya, in particular inspired fashion trends of the time.
Violette Leduc’s article detailing her visit to the set of Doctor Zhivago was released in the September 1965 issue of Vogue. The article was complete with a full spread of photographs of the set and stars of the film. Geraldine Chaplin’s photograph, in full Tonya Zhivago costume, is particularly striking. Chaplin stands on a street set up to look like revolution-era Moscow. She is decked out with a huge, round fur hat, fur stole, and an enormous fur muff. Her face his hidden between the hat and stole, and thus only her eyes and nose peer seductively out at the viewer. She is standing between two imposing portraits of Lenin, Marx and Trotsky, thus setting the scene for the contrast between the lush costumes and world of the early film, and the revolution and hardship that comes later on. This article came out two months before the film was released, likely as part of the intense media blitz on the part of MGM to promote it, and thus generated early excitement and awe at the costumes.
Following the release of the film the ‘Zhivago look’ took full effect. Marc Bohan for Christian Dior drew inspiration for his autumn 1966 line from the film. He used soldier’s caps, long military greatcoats, boots, and fur trim, which all recalled Dalton’s looks for the women of DoctorZhivago. The fur trimmed ‘Zhivago collar’ and fur hats, in particular became popular following the release of the film, and remain so today. If you search ‘Zhivago style’ on google there are entire sections of Etsy dedicated to the fur-trimmed coats and fur hats that were made popular by the film. Advertisements found as late as 1987 make allusions to Doctor Zhivago when trying to sell fur. The look of fur, silk braiding, military coats, and boots of Phyllis Dalton’s costumes remain a key reference point for top designers. It was not just the women of Doctor Zhivago that inspired trends, but the men as well. Omar Sharif, as Yuri Zhivago, sported a large, well-groomed moustache that spurred a renewed interest in facial hair. The impact of Doctor Zhivago’s costumes has extended beyond the year, or even decade, of its release and into the cultural lexicon.
Brazilian artist Lygia Clark’s ‘Óculos’ (Goggles) and Dialogo: Óculos (Dialogue: Goggles) from 1968 draw attention to the performance of wearing, looking and seeing; and the fashion accessory as an object of communication.
Both artworks are performative and are a sensory experience for the participant as well as being an immersive sculpture and fashion accessory. The artwork is the participant wearing the object: a pair of glasses that alters the vision of the participant(s) with magnifying lenses.
In ‘Goggles’ (1968), the artwork exists when the participant wears the goggles. Even here, in this photograph, we are not experiencing the artwork, instead we are seeing a photographic documentation of how the artwork functions when brought to life. We can appreciate this photograph of the glasses on the participant, but we cannot understand what it feels like to experience the glasses; for instance, how they would alter the participant’s vision and the way the participant would feel and interact with others in the space not wearing goggles. ‘Goggles’ is the experience of the participant wearing the goggles in the context they are situated in – it is the interactions they have as a result of ‘being’, ‘seeing’ and therefore communicating as the artwork.
In Clark’s ‘Dialogue Goggles’ (1968), two participants are joined by the goggles they wear. The artwork is the communication between the two participants which is facilitated by the accessory.
There is something both menacing and tender about ‘Goggles’ and ‘Dialogue Goggles’. The goggles, as the object, remind me of WW1 gasmasks or military goggles – the metal arms are jarring and mechanical, and the rubber eye pads are like heavy black shells. The large shape of the goggles obscure the human face like a mask, so that some parts are completely hidden beneath the rubber frames and the eyes are only visible to the other participant. And then, the human aspect of the participants wearing the goggles together puts the objects to function as the artwork and a physical closeness is instigated between the two participants joined by their eyes. The artwork then facilitates an opportunity for intimacy through the participant and the accessory, which is suggested in both of these photos of participants in optic dialogue.