We’ve been busy working on our dissertations, so we’re taking the opportunity to get to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Here, Claudia discusses Ossie Clark, military peacocks, and what artists wear.
What is your dissertation about?
My dissertation centres around how temporality and nostalgia manifested in the designs of Ossie Clark and textile designer Celia Birtwell during the retro-mania of the late 1960s and early 1970s. From his seductive, transparent garments (often worn without underwear) to his hyper-feminine bias cut dresses, Clark was able to reflect contemporary notions of progressive female sexuality whilst simultaneously referencing past art movements and designers. Ranging from the Pre-Raphaelites to 1940s fashion, Clark and Birtwell’s past influences also translated into the fashion photography of their collaborative creations.
My virtual exhibition also focused on Ossie Clark, where one section, ‘Modern Retro’, sought to display the influence of history on Clark and Birtwell in an era of self-conscious modernity. I based my exhibition in Chelsea Town Hall, where Clark held some of his theatrical and often shambolic fashion shows. By the end of the project, I could really visualise the space and how the exhibits (and my imaginary visitors) would interact with each other.
I wanted to convey the impression of an immersive, multi-sensory experience, where people could flow freely through the space. My visitors would be given headphones which would react to each display, playing music to coordinate with each exhibit. I hoped to create a solo, silent Ossie rave to help transport visitors to Swinging London. Having scratched the surface in my virtual exhibition, it’s been really interesting delving deeper into themes of history and continuity in my dissertation research.
What is your favourite dress history photograph?
To save this from turning into an Ossie Clark rant, I’ll opt for one of Horst P. Horst’s neoclassical images, featured in Vogue from September 1937. The model, adorned in a silvery gown by Madeleine Vionnet, seems to simultaneously embody a classical goddess and a modern woman. Posed to statuesque perfection, her bejewelled wrists, held above her modestly lowered head, are clasped together like the fastening of a necklace, metamorphosing her iridescent body into a precious pendant. Alternatively, the vertical pleats of her dress could also transform her into a Corinthian column. The outline of her thigh shimmers under the studio lights, hinting at the sensual body beneath. I love how tactile this image is. Just from looking at it, we get a sense of exactly what it would feel like to wear this dress and to have each delicate pleat ripple across the body.
What is your favourite thing that you’ve written/worked on/researched this year?
I really enjoyed my essay on how military uniform was appropriated by The Rolling Stones and The Beatles in 1966 and 1967. The fact that such archaic and hyper-masculine garments were incorporated into progressively androgynous, peacocking menswear reveals an interesting point of tension in regards to modernising masculinity. The Beatles and The Stones arguably brought this counterculture style of dress to the forefront of contemporary consciousness, asserting their flamboyant individuality, which, ironically, created an impression of uniformity within, and between, both bands.
What is your favourite thing you’ve read this year?
Charlie Porter’s What Artists Wear is something that I keep coming back to (mainly just to flick through the pictures). Porter highlights how the physical intimacy of clothing offers a more personal perspective on world famous artists, from Louise Bourgeois wearing her own latex sculptures, to Frida Kahlo’s politically-charged adoption of, and self-documentation in, men’s suits. I enjoyed how Porter centres debates around female artists’ bodies, which have been historically restricted by clothing. Dress has the destructive potential to limit bodily autonomy and, by extension, creative output. Yet, at the same time, dress becomes a canvas on which artists express themselves, a means to connect with viewers of their work, as well as autobiographical evidence of their life. It really makes you question what you choose to wear.
What are you wearing today?
I wish I was wearing my Anna Sui charity shop find (it’s either a short dress or long top, the jury is still out). Sui is an admirer of Ossie Clark’s work, and the clashing purple floral patterns could have been inspired by Celia Birtwell’s prints, and the flowy sleeves and handkerchief hem are quite Ossie-esque. It’s been fun wearing this to get into character to write my dissertation. I would have worn it over mauve flares, also from a charity shop, and my pistachio-green cowboy boots, you guessed it, from Shein. I jest. They’re from Oxfam.
What I’m actually wearing is an old Breton-striped top of my mum’s which is literally falling apart at the seams, old baggy shorts, and a straw cowboy hat. I look like a distressed, marooned gondolier. For context, I’ve been hacking away at my dissertation in the garden, not that that excuses my dishevelled appearance. Oh, and I’m also sporting some men’s clogs that have become communal gardening shoes. My tortoise is affectionately head-butting one clog as the opening act of his mating ritual. Aside from that, he’s been a very devoted research assistant. He’s wearing his custom-made tortoise-shell print shell suit which I’ve never actually seen him take off…
1930s fashion has always appealed to me. Whether the beautiful flowing drapery of Madeleine Vionnet or the sharp suits worn by Marlene Dietrich, much of the fashion of the decade developed the freedom in dress that we come to appreciate now – both in terms of gender fluid dress, and comfort.
The art deco movement was a key influence on fashion of the time, encouraging a celebration of technological developments and an optimism for the future in its luxurious style. Here and now, as we emerge from the covid-19 pandemic with a sense of relief, but a variety of sources for future anxieties ever-present, it is time for a reinvigoration of that same hope in human ingenuity, celebration of technological developments and optimism for the future. We need comfort, strength and vibrancy, and I think we should be looking to 1930s fashion for inspiration.
A range of comfortable ensembles are documented in the early 1930s. Anna May Wong wears an elegant, loosely fitted dress and leans against a doorway to convey her relaxed manner. Similarly, the model of Falkenstein in the August 1934 issue of Vogue leans against the wall. A rare appearance of trousers in early 1930s Vogue, the image shows a woman comfortable yet glamourous, wearing a tunic which resembles very stylish and eveningwear appropriate dressing-gown.
Moving from comfortable formalwear to comfortable daywear, the beach pyjamas worn by Geeshie Wiley and L. V. ‘Slack’ Thomas are outfits not only that would still be incredible on any beach, but likely will be reflected by many at the Courtauld’s graduation ceremony this summer. Wide-legged trousers and a fitted waist have been in style already for the past few years, but I’d like to see the style with more bright colours and comfortable cotton fabrics.
And what should we wear when there is work to be done? An oversized cardigan with deep pockets in a stunning sage green, of course. An increase in sportswear and ready-to-wear in the 1930s led to a much higher interest in collegiate fashions, such as the varsity jacket and cardigans. The flip side of increased ready-to-wear was a rise in cheaper, lower quality garments. Today, with fast fashion booming and brands like Shein churning out an endless array of garments, it is more important than ever to find clothing that we love and will wear for many years, rather than single use pieces so cheaply made that they will inevitably end up on landfill. Clothing that can be styled in multiple ways, worn in many contexts and brings us joy is vital to us having a more sustainable relationship with our wardrobe. A deep pocketed cardigan perfectly fits the bill for me.
Uncertainty and anxiety have prevailed in recent years. As we move past what has been a difficult period for many, it seems only right that we do so feeling empowered and true to ourselves. Whether or not this means buying your own power suit – you decide. But Marlene Dietrich provides inspiration not only in her incredible suit-wearing, but also in her certainty that what she wanted to wear, what she felt good in, was for her to decide. For all my advocation of a need to revive 1930s fashion, I would like to conclude by moving away from the styles that dominated that period, and rather draw attention to the underlying themes of self-assurance, comfort, and joy. It is these that we should carry with us and cultivate through our wardrobe.
By Megan Stevenson
Arnold, Rebecca. The American Look: Fashion, Sportswear and the Image of Women in 1930s and 1940s America (2009, London)
Wilson, Elizabeth. Adorned in Dream: Fashion and Modernity (2003, London)
When one speaks of Stanley Kubrick, what comes to mind is often the world-renowned director’s timeless oeuvres as A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). And yet, Kubrick’s brilliance was evident even in his often overlooked teen years, when he was just starting out in his career behind the lens, with photographs taken in the streets of New York.
At the mere age of 17, a young teen from the Bronx, Kubrick traded in life as a student after graduating from high school, when he was discovered by Look magazine and hired as staff photographer in 1946. Thus began his brief yet fruitful career as a photojournalist which in many ways paved the way to his stepping into Hollywood and becoming of a filmmaker.
1940s was the time of photo narratives/stories which had surged in popularity with Life magazine. A rival of Life,Look magazine’s aesthetic was focused on the everyday rather than the events of the globe. It aimed to convey the intimacy, eccentricity, and ordinariness of life in New York City. The city’s dynamism, chaos and its multiculturalism made it the perfect location to base the photographs and stories for which it was a source of endless entertainment. Kubrick’s photographs taken for Look between 1945 and 1950 are a reflection of the golden age of post-war America and boom of capitalism. The palpable energy of the city is very clearly translated to the viewer while the style of Kubrick in capturing everyday life reminds one of film noir, a genre he favoured in his films as well.
Kubrick’s career in Look, which ended in 1950 when he decided to leave the magazine behind to focus on making feature films, encompass over a thousand photographs by the famous director. They were often named as being proto-cinematic that signalled to his talent with the camera and unsurprisingly, interest in filmmaking. Although this talent was strongly nurtured during his time in Look that gave Kubrick the opportunity to focus on human interactions and how it could be reflected through the camera it is evident that he was already a naturally gifted storyteller. His genius in conveying the psychological depth and emotion of his subjects through the lens clearly shows through his adeptness at handling the camera, setting and framing scenes to push his narratives, which all formed the strong foundation for his filmmaking career.
‘Everyday’ in New York City that Kubrick captured with his camera encapsulated ordinary people in parks, subways and stores to TV and Hollywood celebrities going about their lives. Kubrick’s ability to turn the ‘everyday’ and ‘ordinary’ into a visual story, and a compelling one at that, was evident early on. Although many of these photographs were spontaneous instances from everyday life, many of them were staged, which also perhaps nodded to Kubrick’s passion for storytelling and interest in film. Kubrick was given assignments, shooting scripts to construct and align his photographs/photo-essays accordingly. He also presented his own themes which were often accepted by the magazine. The given narratives strengthened the filmic quality of Kubrick’s photographs.
One of the main themes of Kubrick’s photographs was genuine human interactions embedded in daily life. His series for the 1946 November issue of Look feature photographic sequences from the street titled Bronx Street Scene: The Camera Catches an Off-guard Episode over a Hairdo. In a series of photos shot consecutively, two women are first seen chatting in front of a shop which is then followed by another shot that show the entrance of a passer-by, another woman into the frame and the two women fixing her hair and having a laugh over the matter. A different strip shows a couple smoking and chatting on the street in front of a store. The naturalness of the gestures and facial expressions coolly emanate from the frame, mesmerising us and insinuating that we have caught glimpses, instances from life with these people and watching from afar in a discreet manner. The consecutive shots and usage of the same vantage point here that reveal the continuation of these two different events very clearly refer to filmic techniques.
Kubrick caught spontaneous scenes from the street. Some he turned into scenes with consecutive shots as seen here. Others instead, were single shots that entailed an overarching theme, such as Park benches: Love is Everywhere series created in 1946 for May 1st issue which was a love series where Kubrick captured young couples on benches, fire escapes and street corners, embracing. Kubrick’s usage of infrared film and flash intensified the candidness of the scenes. The couples were often seemingly caught in unexpected moments, especially at night-time, similar to paparazzi shots which highlighted the voyeuristic tones that Kubrick’s photographs often carried, resembling the technique that was frequently used by famous tabloid photographer Weegee.
A Couple Embracing on a Fire Escape is one of the most unique shots in the series that seems to have a sinister undertone. With not only the oblique angle, the awkward positioning of the couple on the fire escape but also the overpowering flash that has overly whitened the eyes and skin of the couple, transforming them into ghostly figures, reminiscent of deer caught in headlights, which speaks to Kubrick’s genius with the play of light.
The New York subway offered a microcosm of the city. Spending time at the subway for almost two weeks, Kubrick shot discreet photos of people riding the subway with a hidden camera for another assignment titled Life and Love on the New York Subway in 1947 that fit the everyday life of New Yorkers narrative. Placed amongst the candid photographs in the subway spread, some of the photographs such as this one that show a couple, in fact Kubrick’s friends Alexander Singer and Toba Metz, sleeping, were argued to be staged. While the low vantage point, the dramatic contrast between black and white made scenes as the photograph with the couple embracing cinematic, it also put forward the harsh realities of big city, with the homeless man sleeping in the background, somewhat taking the focus away from the romance in the shot.
The shots that focus on individuals and their facial expressions show a study of psychological depth that also belongs to the cinematic verse. Glorifying the normalcy of everyday life of ordinary people in the big city stretched from photographing people waiting in line to do laundry, waiting in the subway and shopping in the city. What all of them shared in common was the focus on large crowds to highlight the act of looking. We see people watching other people and then we realise we are also watching these people through Kubrick’s lens.
This theme was made central in a series that Kubrick had created, capturing in separate ‘reaction shots’, the confused and surprised expressions of people watching a publicity stunt with a model triumphantly posing next to a group of sign painters in front of a billboard for a Peter Pan bra advertisement high up on a building on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street (September 3, 1947). In this collaborative work with Frank Bauman and Tom Weber, Kubrick’s interest in film became more poignant, whilst also showing that entertainment and spectacle were always around the corner in an ordinary day in New York City, embedded in the spirit of the city.
In another series for Look, Kubrick started to focus on individual profiles. In this spread he celebrated the balancing act of a young shoeshine boy named Mickey, documenting a day in his life. Son of Irish immigrants, Mickey made a living by shining shoes to support his family. Taking around 250 photos for his first long photo-essay assignment, Kubrick presented the young boy’s life, showing him playing and conversing with friends in one shot, working, doing laundry, or contemplating life in a mature manner on a rooftop of a New York building in the next shot. Showing Mickey’s difficult life stuck between trying to provide for his family whilst simultaneously trying to enjoy his young years, Kubrick poignantly captured the difficulties faced by lower classes in attempting to survive in a thriving, chaotic city. The fact that this series was not published shows that gruesome realities of a big city were mostly glossed over in Look compared to Life. This photo series that contrast shots of Mickey with friends and ones where he is wandering the city alone poignantly intensify the difficult double life he leads, both, juggling adult responsibilities.
Edging closer to his interest and career in film, Kubrick’s photographs after 1948 started to focus on well-known faces from TV and Hollywood. Kubrick offered the most psychologically complex portraits from these people’s lives. One series that showed the disparity between public persona and private, backstage reality, was another ‘unpublished’ photo narrative series from March 1949, where Kubrick captured a day in life of a showgirl named Rosemary Williams. Williams was a young girl that had come to New York City dreaming of becoming an actress.
However, struggling to make ends meet as an ingénue in the big city, Williams became a showgirl by night to attempt to make it as actress by day. It was evidently a far less graceful lifestyle compared to that of an actress, as Williams often performed in revealing clothes for the pleasure of men. Captured walking in the streets of New York, having coffee, reading in the privacy of her home to posing in front of the camera and in the backstage getting ready to go on stage, Williams’ life is documented in around 700 images, amounting to one of Kubrick’s longest narratives.
Her professional life is shown through shots of her either conversing or dancing with men or posing in front of the camera. These photographs that show her with company, emphasize the overpowering male gaze that is directed on Williams that signal to her profession and the tool that allows her to sustain her dreams in the big city. Kubrick captured Williams’ despair resulting from the hardships she faces perfectly in her demure expressions and often contemplative manner, from moments of leisure when she alone appears within the frame, much like the aforementioned Mickey. Perhaps the most intriguing photograph of Williams is the in-between public and private realms, where she is getting ready in the backstage in front of a mirror before her performance. Yet, Kubrick haunts this scene with a menacing stare and manner, with a camera in hand which is strategically lowered as he looms large behind Williams as she carries on preparing for the stage, seemingly unaware. Insinuating the voyeurism of the male spectator and the life of a showgirl – which is one that is under constant scrutiny of the male gaze due to the exhibitionist nature of the profession – is perfectly reflected here not only with Kubrick’s sinister placement at the back, intensely staring at Williams getting ready, but also with the mirror and the camera that appears to be subtly filming her below vantage point. Undeniably eerie, the genius of Kubrick lies in the blurring of the concept of the gaze. Perhaps a reference to Velazquez’s Las Meninas the subject of the photograph also becomes the viewer. The viewer is caught in the act of watching Williams in a private moment. Williams is caught between a crossfire of gazes as the camera directed to the viewer reminds us that we are also active voyeurs. The widened frame and the surrounding sense of mystery contributes to the filmic elements of this scene. It becomes evident that the running theme of the ‘unpublished’ spreads were harsh and forsaken reality of the city that Kubrick attempted to unearth and present to the wider public in the manner of Life magazine yet one that was often hindered by Look. This perhaps became a further push for Kubrick in the direction of cinema where he could tell his stories freely.
Look magazine also differed from Life in the sense that it aimed to show the ‘real’ lives of Hollywood and TV figures to instil the sense of normalcy around famous people, showing them both on and off camera. Yet, Kubrick still offered heavily staged photographs. Williams’ story was most likely swapped for a high-profile celebrity spotlight issue on Faye Emerson titled, Faye Emerson: Young Lady in a Hurry. Emerson was considered as picture of elegance, grace and intelligence. TV was on the rise and was slowly becoming a rival to radio and print. A Hollywood actress recently turned in to TV presenter, Emerson was regarded as ‘First Lady of TV’ and listed under ‘Top Female Discovery of 1949’ list, which, alongside her career switch, made her worthy of a cover story according to Look magazine. Emerson in this photographic series created by Kubrick for the August 1950 issue, is presented as joyful, both behind and in front of the camera: whether she is distributing autographs for eager fans, interviewed near the Plaza hotel, captured having a laugh with the society columnist Eleanor Harris, casually sitting for a portrait with a phone in hand making calls whilst also getting her hair done.
Emerson never ceases to smile in the photos despite her evidently busy schedule, forming part of Kubrick’s constructed story surrounding Emerson, promoting the busy yet elegant and content lady to aspire to, which the title clearly insinuates. In one photograph, Emerson is captured whilst getting ready in her dressing room. Kubrick uses the same style and framing with the mirror he used in the unpublished photograph of Williams backstage, placing himself behind Emerson with a camera, watching her whilst she’s getting ready. Yet the difference here is that Emerson is aware of being photographed by Kubrick and almost poses for him whilst getting ready to be on screen. Usage of a mirror cleverly conveys the duplicity of TV personas, and their elaborate yet fabricated self-creation for TV.
Very similar to Emerson’s profile was one created for Betsy Von Furstenberg. Furstenberg was the daughter of a German aristocrat and was also as an actress in New York. Another, ‘Day in the Life of’ piece, her everyday life was represented in a cinematographic and theatrical way in these photograph series by Kubrick. She is shown engaging in a variety of ‘serious’ and normal activities such as preparing for a role in her home, socialising with friends as well as silly moments from peeling a banana in a fancy restaurant to sleeping on the steps of the Plaza hotel next to John Hamlin. These pictures were featured in Look magazine’s spread from July 18, 1950 with the title The Debutante Who Went to Work. Photographs represent the juggling of day-to-day life with a highly glamorised one with comedic effect, evident from the awkward moments, humorous gestures, and facial expressions of Furstenberg. Whilst a more psychologically in-depth narrative was worked on for the earlier photographs of Williams was ultimately shelved, favouring a feature that was created around a lady that worked despite her aristocratic background. This shows the elegant façade that sought to represent life in New York City, with the gruesome realities of hardship were kept very deliberately hidden. A debutante that balanced life and work was one to be aspired to while a showgirl trying to make ends meet was one that was far too real and far less glamourous. Von Furstenberg’s story was about elegance, and, on the surface a light-hearted, innocent story of how to make it as an actress in the big city, despite being further removed from reality. The theatricality of the mimics and gestures of Von Furstenberg is in high contrast with that of Williams which almost insinuates the fabricated nature of this narrative and lifestyle.
Looking back at his brief time as a photojournalist in 1972, the director himself commented: ‘By the time I was 21 I had four years of seeing how things worked in the world. I think if I had gone to college I would never have been a director.’ Photographs such as these taken in the streets of New York put forward the theatricality of the city which Kubrick presented in his characters, personas and well-known faces that made up the city, delving into private lives of public figures, producing intimate and psychological portraits. Whether watching these figures from afar, standing in the crowd beside them or even in their private quarters, Kubrick always placed the viewer in the intimate world of his subjects. The photographs offered a genuine image of New York City, shining light on different lifestyles of those from a variety of backgrounds, showcasing moments that revealed the everyday routines of people from different classes, with everyone united in their common goal of attaining ‘The American Dream’.
The director’s final film Eyes Wide Shut (1999), set in New York, caused quite a stir in its exploration of the mysterious and dangerous sides of the vibrant city of New York, focusing on an elite cult. This suggests that the famous director was perhaps making a nostalgic tribute to his time as a young photojournalist in the midst of this chaotic city he found himself in, and the vibrant scenes he caught glimpses of with his camera as a teenage boy. Today, Kubrick is better known for his 12 feature films yet his strength in visual storytelling was implanted in his little-known early career as a photojournalist. It is evident that for Kubrick these early photographs, as Sean Corcoran (the Photography Curator at the Museum of the City of New York) stated, allowed him to master the art of framing the composition and opened his eye in different ways of seeing. Kubrick himself said: ‘Generally speaking, you can make almost any action or situation into an interesting shot, if it’s composed well and lit well.’ Kubrick’s genius seeps from his œuvre produced in his short time as a photojournalist, right on the brink of his career as a director.
By Ipek Birgul Kozanoglu
Albrecht, Donald; Corcoran, Sean. Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs, (Köln & New York: Taschen, Museum of the City of New York, 2018)
Mather, Philippe D. Stanley Kubrick at Look Magazine Authorship and Genre in Photojournalism and Film. (Bristol:Intellect, 2013)
A little while back, I stumbled across Margaret Bourke-White whilst looking up 20th Century female photographers, discovering her work among others such as Germaine Krull and Grete Stern. It goes without saying that each of these women were respectively brilliant at working behind the lens, and each are deserving of a writeup, but I was especially drawn to Bourke-White’s photographs of Marina Semyonova (fig. 1).
Taken at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, this photo shows Semyonova – the first Soviet-trained prima ballerina – preparing herself ahead of a ballet performance. Semyonova’s body is folded into itself, revealing the physical contortions and movement required of her in order to reach and tie her ballet shoes. Her posture is considered, and the chair acts as a prop to help elongate her body and better display her ballet shoe all the while creating a tension between her body and the billowing tutu which surrounds her and presses upon the back of the chair. Semyonova is artfully staged, and her pose emulates the exaggerated stillness of the photographic form, reinforcing the expectation for ballerinas to always appear elegant, not just during a performance. Her left leg is deliberately aligned in a nod to her profession, recreating one half of the en pointe position and her outstretched arms provide an extension of the en pointe motif. This creates a clear shot for which Bourke-White could effectively capture Semyonova, allowing Bourke-White to play with light to illuminate Semyonova’s body and project a shadow onto the far wall.
With that said, what I found most appealing about this photo, is despite this photo having an editorial-like feel, the loose threads on Semyonova’s ballet shoes offer a reminder of the countless hours of practice required to become a ballerina, displaying the real-life implications of such a profession. This suggest that whilst Semyonova displays poise and elegance, these attributes have been mastered over time. However, the loose threads could also be linked to the USSR in relation to its second five-year plan which sought to prioritise agricultural and self-sufficiency ahead of consumer goods and frivolity, and the loose threads thereby reveal the unravelling of previous political and cultural practices.
Through considering such a beautiful photo, I wanted to discover more about Bourke-White’s work, particularly as this photo was taken during the political unease of the Soviet Union. My research revealed that Bourke-White excelled as a photographer and whose accomplishments were plentiful. Born in 1904, Margaret Bourke-White would go on to set up her own photography studio in 1928 in Ohio, but her work would soon take her abroad, namely to the likes of Russia, South Korea, India and Pakistan where she was commissioned to document moments of political divide, wars and social unrest.
To name but a few of her impressive feats, Bourke-White was the first US photographer to enter the Soviet Union, the first US accredited female war photographer during WWII and responsible for the first cover for LIFE Magazine (fig. 2).
This cover highlights Bourke-White’s unique ability to take an imposing architectural structure and create a striking and an arresting image. She was commissioned to photograph this multi-million-dollar project of the Columbia River Basin and the construction of its impressive dam. The angle at which Bourke-White captured this photo and its emphasis on the symmetry of each of the concrete structures makes them appear – at least in my mind – as gigantic chess pieces bearing a similarity in shape to the ‘Rook’, with the two individuals symbolically positioned as pawns within this almighty chess board. The vibrant orange of the cover contrasts with the black and white image, at once cropping and framing the two individuals stood at the foot of the structure. The shot appears to reinforce the idea that these structures are in fact man made, with the two individuals attesting to the labour required to build such structures, and yet conveys the structures as colossal, unnatural, and otherworldly. Indeed, the editors notes that in commissioning Bourke-White they unexpectedly received, ‘a human document of American frontier life which, to them at least, was a revelation.’ This very observation highlights the talents of Bourke-White, and her ability to capture life within an otherwise intimidating concrete structure. This style of photography also calls to mind El Lissitzy and his photomontages for the SSSR na stroike (trans: USSR in construction) in 1932, with the overall global emphasis on self-sufficiency, driven by its workforce, who become the centre of El Lissitzy’s photomontage (fig. 3). This theme is echoed in Bourke-White’s photography, and the two share similar aims in trying to establish the strength of their respective cities and nations. To this effect, Bourke-White’s photography could be considered an artistic response to Constructivist periodical layouts and El Lissitzy’s earlier work.
The final photograph I would like to discuss is a self-portrait, rumoured to be Bourke-White’s favourite self-portrait, made with the U.S. 8th Air Force in 1943 (fig. 4).
In a similar vein to Bourke-White’s cover for LIFE Magazine, this photo marries machinery and industrial elements with humanity. While the airplane’s jets have been switched off, this photo conveys the necessity to be on constant standby, responding to any changes quickly and efficiently. Bourke-White has a tight hold of the large camera, figuratively and literally held down by the camera, and carries her flying helmet and goggles in her other hand with comparative ease. To this effect, this photo is suggestive of the precarity of the war and the need to be on constant alert as well as Bourke-White’s role to document the events. This is further reinforced by the inclusion of the plane in the frame – its proximity reinforces the fact that it is only a matter of time before this unit needs to reembark the plane.
At the same time, Bourke-White’s stance is relaxed yet upright, smiling as the wind blows through her hair. The tongues of her shoes are flopped over, giving the impression of a rare moment of respite, reinforced by the fact that their surroundings appear bare and uninhabited, suggesting a minimised threat or danger. The aviator jacket is fit with shearling trimmings, and complete with matching trousers, also lined with shearling, featuring leg-long zips and stained with a white powder residue. The crease patterns, particularly on the trousers, suggest the cramped conditions of the plane and it would appear as though Bourke-White has barely stepped off the plane. While her stance is relaxed, and she is surrounded by an expansive empty landscape, the trousers act as her ‘second skin’ and become a reminder that she did not have the luxury of space a few moments ago, and the trousers have not yet and will not likely get the chance to mould to their new surroundings, complete with the luxury of space, or Bourke-White’s standing pose.
Sadly, Margaret Bourke-White contracted Parkinson’s disease in 1953 and completed her last assignment for LIFE in 1957. With that said, she displayed great determination in trying to overcome the symptoms of her Parkinson’s, undergoing risky surgeries, and in true documentary photographer style, publicised and documented her fight against the disease, cementing her status as a formidable character and individual (fig. 5). She sadly passed away in 1971 but while her career was cut short by Parkinson’s, Bourke-White was rightly recognised in her lifetime as a true pioneer in documentary photography, particularly as a female photographer for her ability to uniquely capture people and places in and amongst periods of great change, showcasing their struggles and strengths.
** This blog post contains spoilers for Mad About Men (1954), La Piscine (1969) and Mahogany (1975) **
Sometimes I want to watch a film, not really for the plot, but for either the fashion, the cinematography, the set design or even just the general aesthetic. So, just in case anyone else has the same penchant for beautiful films, I’ve comprised a short list of three recommendations from the 50s, 60s and 70s respectively.
Mad About Men (1954):
Mad About Men is the charming sequel to the 1948 comedy film Miranda in which a lonely mermaid captures a young man and only offers to release him on the basis that he will take her to London. In Mad About Men, set in Cornwall, Miranda Trewella (Glynis Johns) returns and convinces her distant relative and doppelgänger Caroline Trewella (Glynis Johns) to let her take her place whilst Caroline goes on a biking excursion with a friend. In order to do this, Caroline fakes an accident which leaves her wheelchair bound, explaining Miranda’s inability to walk and need to keep her ‘legs’ covered with warm blankets. The pair also hire Nurse Carey (Margaret Rutherford), who knows Miranda is a mermaid and helped her in the first film too. However, even though Caroline is engaged back in London to the dull but stable Ronald Baker (Peter Martyn), Miranda playing as Caroline cannot help herself when she meets some of the town’s most handsome men, and she flirts, dates and kisses both Jeff Saunders (Donald Sinden) and Colonel Barclay Sutton (Nicholas Phipps). When Ronald comes to visit ‘Caroline’ in Cornwall, Miranda takes an immediate dislike to him and ends up pouring cold fish soup over his head. The Colonel’s wife is suspicious of ‘Caroline’ and ends up discovering her secret, so, in a plot to expose her, she agrees to let ‘Caroline’ sing at a charity concert and plans to reveal her mermaid tail on stage. However, Caroline gets back from her trip and takes Miranda’s place on stage whilst the Nurse feeds the microphone down to the cove where Miranda lives so her siren-esque singing voice can still be heard. The film ends with the real Caroline and Jeff Saunders sharing a kiss whilst Miranda is safely back in the Cornish Sea.
Despite mentioning earlier that plot isn’t important when watching for purely aesthetic reasons, this film is so fun and light-hearted it is difficult not to enjoy the story and fall in love with Miranda whilst you watch it. However, where this film really shines is in highlighting the wistful and whimsical beauty of Miranda and the more prim and proper styling of Caroline. Joan Ellacott’s costuming and Glynis Johns’ acting allows for viewers to differentiate easily between the Trewella girls. Here are some of the best style/aesthetic moments…
If you’re craving some warmth, you must watch 1969’s La Piscine, a film where the Southern French sunshine seems to seep through the screen. This film is the epitome of ‘embodied viewing’ where you can feel the sun and water on your skin, and you can smell the heat in the air. La Piscine is set in a villa on the French Riviera where a couple, Marianne (Romy Schneider) and Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) are enjoying the summer. After finding out Marianne and Jean-Paul are nearby, the couple’s old friend Harry (Maurice Ronet) and his daughter Penelope (Jane Birkin) come and stay. Whilst this initially consists of old friends catching up and new memories being made through extravagant parties, tensions soon begin to rise when Jean-Paul realises that Marianne and Harry were once lovers. The situation further complicates itself when Jean-Paul decides to seduce Harry’s 18-year-old daughter Penelope. The two men, whilst drunk, end up getting into a fight which culminates with Harry falling into the swimming pool. From here, instead of helping him out, Jean-Paul proceeds to drown him and then stages the scene to look like an accident. Marianne eventually finds out what Jean-Paul did but both continue to lie to the police and eventually the case is closed with Harry’s death being marked as an accident. The film ends with Penelope returning to her mother and Jean-Paul seemingly forcing Marianne to stay with him at the villa.
This film is beautiful all-round. The French Riviera location, the impressive villa, the cast and, perhaps most importantly the dressing and undressing of bodies. The theme of the body is central throughout this film, with long, toned and sun-kissed limbs filling the poolside shots. Here are some of the most beautiful outfits, shots and scenes…
First things first, the men in this movie are awful. Truly, every single one of them is just unbearable. But with that aside, Mahogany is firm favourite in every fashion lovers’ movie list. The film stars a post-Supremes Diana Ross as fashion student and department store secretary Tracy Chambers. Set in Chicago, the film shows Tracy living in the ‘slums’ of Chicago’s South whilst working at a high-end department store and harbouring dreams of becoming a high fashion designer. Tracy meets and begins dating Brian Walker, an activist fighting against the demolition of housing in primarily black neighbourhoods. Brian, whilst seemingly having a good heart and high ambitions for himself routinely brushes off Tracy’s goals as trivial and devoid of real meaning, insisting fashion is unimportant compared to his work within the neighbourhood. This means that when Tracy meets and befriends the renowned photographer Sean McAvoy who sees her as having real potential as a model, Tracy jumps at the chance to find an in to the industry which means so much to her. After a fight with Brian, Tracy moves to Rome to pursue modelling with Sean, who gives her the stage name Mahogany. A classic movie montage shows Mahogany’s modelling career take off and her charm and charisma capturing both the wider fashion world’s attention as well as Sean’s, who is interested in pursuing her romantically. Sean becomes increasingly possessive and struggles with Tracy’s free-spirited nature and inability to be controlled. Brian visits Tracy in Rome and gets into a fight with Sean involving a gun; Brian leaves Rome alone. At their next fashion shoot in which Tracy is posed inside a sports car, Sean is trying to ‘capture death’ and ends up getting into the car and begins driving erratically. Eventually, with Sean at the wheel, the car crashes leaving Tracy badly injured and Sean dead. In the aftermath of the accident, a wealthy count lets Tracy recover at his villa and sets up a design studio for her there. Instead of feeling fulfilled by finally reaching her dream career, she is left feeling frustrated, lonely, and unhappy despite the huge success of her first official collection. Tracy realises that success means nothing without Brian by her side and she returns to Chicago to be with him.
Despite Tracy’s life being littered with frustrating men who seem desperate to keep her potential hidden away, she does look incredible throughout the film. As a little sidenote, Diana Ross actually designed a lot of Tracy’s outfits as she trained in dressmaking before her career took off! Here are some of her best looks…
I recently found myself sifting through self-portraits by women photographers in a not very coherent bout of research on the National Portrait Gallery website. I didn’t find exactly what I had been looking for, but I did find something much better – this photo of Madame Yevonde (fig.1).
This photo caught my eye, and made me smile, when I had been otherwise stuck in a trance of endless scrolling. Her smart chequered suit, upright pose, and jaunty hat scream pride in herself, her work, and a humorous relationship between photography and portraiture. Editing of the image has rendered her miniature besides her huge vintage camera, an ode to her earlier portrait studio and a recognition of the many decades she had spent in the industry.
After seeing such a joyful, humorous, and enigmatic portrait, I had to look into Madame Yevonde’s work further. I want to share some of the wonderful images I have found, and generally indulge in Madame Yevonde’s personality-filled work for a while longer.
Born in 1893, Yevonde Philone Middleton was a photographer, primarily taking studio portraits, for an impressive portion of the twentieth century. Known professionally as Madame Yevonde, she opened her first photography studio in 1914 at the age of 21 and continued to work until a few months before her death in 1975.
There always seems to be something eye-catching or dramatic about Madame Yevonde’s photography. Her main mastery was in the VIVEX colour process, which allowed her to produce vibrant and lustrous colour shots. Her portrait of Vivien Leigh (fig.2) demonstrates this perfectly. The punchy red of the background emboldens Leigh, her red lip and scarf connecting her to the red reflections of the light, and her green top bringing her strongly into the foreground. Her face is lit from one side, drawing attention to the outline of her face, and contours of her nose and cheeks. It’s the sort of photo that makes you stop and look twice.
The next photo that jumped out to me was the portrait of the Hon. Mrs James Beck as Daphne (fig.3), a part of Madame Yevonde’s Goddesses series. Inspired by a society charity ball with an Olympian theme, Madame Yevonde made a series of portraits of society women dressed as goddesses in 1935. The abundance of leaves represent Daphne’s transformation into a Laurel tree in Greek mythology. The leaves cast a distinctive shadow across Mrs James Beck’s face, as if they are reaching across her and we are seeing Daphne mid-transformation. The shadows are tinted green in a way that the real leaf shadows would not be (they are not translucent), reminding us that this is a manufactured portrait, a piece of art.
The solarised portrait of Dame Dorothy Tutin (fig.4) shows another style Madame Yevonde was adept at. The solarised image brings far more texture to the portrait, particularly allowing Tutin’s ruffled hair to stand out. The darkness of her plucked eyebrows draws our attention to her serene facial expression. The contrast across the wide collar of her top gives her a regal presence. I think this portrait is one of the most characterful that Madame Yevonde produced. The solarised effect gives insight into the formality, poise, and elegance that Tutin is able to project, whilst also highlighting the relaxed side that is hinted at by her haircut.
I hope to have shown you a glimpse into the wonderful world of Madame Yevonde’s photography. Through skilful manipulation of colour, props, photographic effect, and lighting, Madame Yevonde is able to create bold images that are still able to catch my eye, even in today’s image-saturated world.
Here begins Jûzô Itami’s Tampopo of 1985. A mobster and his mistress, both glamorously suited head-to-toe in white, saunter to the front row of a movie theatre and set up their champagne feast. Our unnamed ‘Man in White Suit’ wastes no time addressing us, confidently leaning into the other side of the screen to see what we have brought to snack on during the feature, so long as it is nothing involving “crinkle wrappers”. After hysterically threatening to kill a man in the audience who dared to rustle about his chip packet, the movie theatre fades into darkness. The movie starts.
Tampopo is a visually delicious tale of food and love. The movie has always been a firm favourite of mine as a self-proclaimed ‘foodie’: each scene highlighting the etiquette of eating, the art of selecting the perfect ingredients and, above all, the momentous pursuit of the perfect bowl of ramen. Steam wafts from the surface of the hot broth so that you, behind the screen, can almost smell it. Chopsticks plunge into the soupy pool and retrieve long golden bands of noodles, followed by the menma and vegetables, and then succulent pieces of meat. Finally, the broth is sipped until the bowl is empty. I have never sat down to watch Tampopo on an empty stomach. It would be agony.
The central plotline of the movie – a parody of the American ‘Western’ genre – follows the eponymous Tampopo as she works to rejuvenate her rather mediocre ramen shop into one beyond compare. After a chance encounter with Gorō, a mysterious man on the road with an unparalleled knowledge of the dish, the pair toil to refine Tampopo’s ramen recipe, with a little help along the way. Punctured by a series of vignettes which explore other characters’ unique relationship with food, whether it be haughty French cuisine or hearty Italian pasta, Tampopo makes us fall in love with food again.
While food really is the main focus of the movie, Itami’s use of costume plays into his shrewd satire of the traditional Western genre, while contributing to the overall indulgent and sensual appeal of this food epic. Perhaps the most pertinent and ironic costume in the film is Gorō’s cowboy-esque look. His character is always dressed in a well-worn shirt – often with a neckerchief poking through in true Indiana Jones style – tucked into a pair of sturdy jeans. The Western look is completed with his trusty Stetson, which Gorō refuses to remove even in a scene where we see him in a bathtub. At times conniving, like the Western cowboys his character mocks, he encourages Tampopo to spy on other ramen shops to steal elements of their recipes. Gorō thus emerges as a comical play with the hero of the American Western. Like them, he is an adventurer. But he is an adventurer in search of good ramen, and the
only showdowns he engages in are with those who stand in his and Tampopo’s way.
Throughout the movie, Tampopo herself undergoes a Cinderella type transformation both in her culinary skills and her fashion. When she begs Gorō to be his ramen-apprentice at the beginning of the feature, she wears a simple white uniform and a protective scarf to cover her hair. This white uniform appears rather fragile, wrapped in clouds of steam and cigarette smoke as Tampopo works relentlessly at her broth. When the ultimate recipe is near completion, Tampopo goes through a classic movie makeover, first showing off a new professional chef’s outfit and then sporting a stylish ensemble to accompany Gorō to dinner. Upon seeing her in this particularly fashionable outfit, Gorō moans that she now looks “hard to talk to”. Her red polka-dot dress, complemented by her matching red lipstick, gives Tampopo a renewed sense of conviction as she edges towards being crowned ramen chef par excellence.
One of the most famed vignettes of Tampopo is the undeniably erotic ‘egg yolk’ scene between our mobster and his mistress. The couple pass between their open mouths a raw egg yolk, never allowing their lips to meet in a kiss, until it bursts in a moment of suggestive ecstasy. The golden liquid drips from the mistress’s mouth onto her dress, and transfers to the mobster’s lapel. Similar to those worn by the likes of Al Pacino in American gangster movies, his white suit was once a sign of his untouchable status. The indelible stain of the egg yolk on the once-pristine costume, however, speaks to the corruptive power of lust. And yet, this not merely a lust between man and woman, but between man, woman and food.
Raunchy interactions with eggs aside, Itami also uses the relationship between costume and food as a shrewd social commentary. One of the funniest vignettes (in my opinion) occurs when an old white gentleman sits down to eat dinner in an Italian restaurant in Japan. After ordering, he eavesdrops on a ladies’ society upstairs, who are being instructed by their leader on the ‘proper’ way to eat pasta like an Italian. This leader of the group, with her neatly coiffed hair and prim gold suit jacket, orders the women to never audibly slurp their spaghetti as this “is absolutely taboo abroad”. Much to her disdain, however, her commands are interrupted by the old man who is scoffing his spaghetti, and making a great noise while doing so. After watching him devour his meal, the ladies’ society and their leader succumb to mimicking his way of eating. Not a napkin in sight to protect their obviously pricey ensembles and accessories, regard for dress is thus cast aside – enjoying the meal is of the utmost importance.
Throughout Tampopo, Itami sets up a subtle yet provoking interplay between Western dress and etiquette, and Japanese tradition. His characters sport largely Americanised dress following the tropes of classic Hollywood genres which, according to Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, signifies the Japanese sense of the self in relation to other nations. The conservatively dressed ladies’ society, the Western look of Gorō, and the Americanised glamour or Tampopo at the end of the movie might, at first glance, point towards an overwhelming European and American influence on Japanese culture. However, this imitation of Western eating habits and dress is exaggerated by Itami to the point of parody. What prevails is the art of ramen. Our movie closes with a visit to Tampopo’s new professional kitchen, where she prepares a final meal for her fellow ramen enthusiasts. They devour every last morsel, drinking the broth one after the other before placing their bowls down for the last time. We leave Tampopo behind, and accompany Gorō as he climbs aboard his truck once more. Our ramen cowboy slinks into the distance as the credits roll, ready for another adventure full of flavour.
This post contains spoilers from the film Passing.
Jazz, novelty, dynamism and the rebirth of Black culture… It was the 1920s and the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing. Mainly taking place in New York and spreading to the rest of the world, the era spanned from the 20s to 30s and beyond. However, behind the glitz and glamour was an era tainted by prohibition and racial tensions. An esteemed product of this age, which captured the psychology, and tensions of the era subtly yet brilliantly, was Nella Larsen’s novel Passing (1929), recently adapted to a Netflix movie in the same name, by Rebecca Hall as her directorial debut.
Larsen’s story is centred around the encounter of two childhood friends, light skinned, mixed race African-American women, Irene Redfield (played by Tessa Thompson) and Clare Bellew (played by Ruth Negga), in Harlem, as adults and the tensions that rise between them. The twist of the story is introduced when the two women run in to each other at a fancy tearoom at the Drayton Hotel in New York, mostly reserved for wealthy, white upper classes. As it is revealed that Clare is married to a racist, upper-class white man from Chicago, who is however oblivious to her race, it becomes clear that she is ‘passing’ as white because of her light skin tone.
Irene is a middle-class, responsible housewife and mother living in Harlem with her black, doctor husband Brian and two boys. She is fervently tied to her race and community, head of the ‘Negro Dance Committee’ and centres her life around trying to do ‘the right thing’. On the surface she is reserved and abides by morals and class boundaries. Clare on the other hand is reckless, selfish, and passionate, living her life on the edge. However, both characters are intricately complex, juggling with tensions within. Clare denies her roots, yet she also yearns for a sense of community, longs to go back to her own culture, and thus gradually seeps into Irene’s life. While Irene is angry at Clare for denying her race, for her insistence and success at getting what she wants no matter the cost and her relentless challenging of the status quo, she is drawn to Clare and her mystery. Her desire to adopt Clare’s ease and allure makes her unable to drive her out of her life.
Hall lifts Larsen’s words and creates a film that conveys her spirit, and feelings through incredible symbolism. She foreshadows events through objects, accentuates the characters’ distinctive personality traits through clothing, conveys the tension and drama between the figures through dramatic camera shots and music.
Larsen tells the story from the point of view of Irene, so events are mostly tinged by her feelings in the book. Irene’s internal angst which comprises the base of the novel, is poignantly picked up in the film through close-up shots that focus on her facial expressions. Her frustration is amplified through the black and white lens the film is shot in, the chiaroscuro effect that seems to sharpen when Irene is on screen, lighting one side of her face while casting the other side in stark darkness.
On the other hand, Clare, who is constantly described as a ‘vision’ or having a ‘glowing’ sense of beauty in the book, is bathed in a soft light, devoid of the shadows seen on Irene’s face, bringing the glow that surrounds her to Irene’s surroundings, which are often darkened.
At the beginning of the film when Clare and Irene first encounter one another, the close-up shots distinctly switch from one woman’s face to the other. This technique is repeated later when Clare comes to Irene’s house for the first time. Hall amplifies the fact that the two women are in fact mirrors but also complete one another.
Although the scene in the beginning where Clare is revealed to be married to a racist man and hiding her identity sets the tension of the film, the film is overall devoid of any overt scenes of violence related to racism. Instead, racial tensions that are boiling underneath, are conveyed through secondary sources. In one scene, Irene hears from Brian that one of her sons were called a ‘negro’ at school and in another Brian reads about a black man being lynched on the streets of New York, on the newspaper. Even Clare’s husband John’s prejudice is based on what he has read and heard about black people on the news rather than a personal experience, as it is revealed when Clare introduces him to Ruth at the very beginning of the film.
The film’s high symbolism translates to many elements being conveyed implicitly rather than blatantly. Irene who suspects Clare to be having an affair with her husband, sees them having an intimate conversation through the mirror in the living room in her house, however as she approaches them, the camera then pans right, revealing them to be standing further apart from one another, hence conveying Irene’s growing doubts and jealousy that also cloud her judgement through the symbol of the mirror.
The crack in Brian and Irene’s bedroom ceiling becomes a metaphor for the crack in their marriage which progressively grows as Irene’s suspicions regarding her husband and Clare having an affair deepens as the film progresses. The viewer is presented with individual shots of the couple gazing at that crack, mostly after they have a discordance, in different points of the film. The symbolism becomes more potent as Irene’s marriage becomes turbulent.
In another scene, just as Clare declares her longing to become part of the black community again, Irene drops her flowerpot out the window which symbolises her unease and reluctance in Clare’s sudden intrusion in her life.
The palpable tensions between the women are also conveyed through a jazz piece titled The Homeless Wanderer that is repeated constantly in the film. The piano piece is a fluctuating one, harbouring a sense of melancholy, mystery, and an uneasiness, conveying the feeling of 1920s New York poignantly. However, this melody also mostly fills the intervals, repeated each time when Irene is seen walking home carrying groceries, passing the same brownstone buildings, or after a scene when Clare and Irene have an impactful conversation. On one side it emphasizes the monotony of Irene’s life. On the other, the piece becomes a metaphor for the masks both characters are carrying, the tentative balancing act they perform in keeping secrets, hiding their true selves. It becomes the voice of both characters, speaking what is unsaid, conveying feelings unexpressed.
The drama created through this music, the acute camera angles, and the sharp chiaroscuro emanates a Hitchcockian vibe in the film. The tensions rise as Clare increasingly infiltrates Irene’s life. With each move, gesture and gaze, the drama created through the music, the acute camera angles and sharp chiaroscuro carefully calculated by Hall, each scene becomes a perfect composition that reminds one of the theatrical and dramatic nature of the films of the 1920s and 1930s as well as American film noir. The drama, compressed feelings and tensions become even more amplified in the boxed, 4:3 ratio frame the film is shot in. The usage of black and white cinematography, while on the on side evoking the film style of the era, it more importantly, draws attention to the idea of race and skin colour. The idea of ‘passing’ is very clearly visualised as it becomes difficult to distinguish the skin colour of the two women from white men. It is an ingenious technique, in which Hall stated that she employed to draw the attention to the concept of race and its construction by the powerful figures in society to serve their needs while the fact in the matter is, the complex nature of race cannot be simplified and boxed into a category. She says: “After all, black and white film is not black and white, it’s a thousand shades of gray, just like everything else.”
The film becomes a distinct character study. The one aspect sacrificed for the black and white lens is the incredibly vibrant and colourful dresses of characters that are drawn specific attention to in the book. Instead, the two women’s identities are constructed through their silhouettes, the style of their dresses and more specifically, by their hats.
Irene, from the very beginning of the film enters the scene with a brimmed hat that covers half of her face. Throughout the film, she rarely goes out without a brimmed hat. The hat indicates Irene’s closed off nature and her reserved manners. It becomes much like a shield that she hides behind to protect herself from the rest of the world and to hide her race. This is further accentuated by her slumped posture and her modest, conventional outfits that mostly cover her shoulders. Even when she wears an evening gown with straps that exposes her shoulders, she wears gloves that cover more than half of her arms, always shielded from contact with outside world. Contrastingly, Clare rarely wears a hat. The ones she wears occasionally, always reveal her face. Her upright, firm posture is accentuated through her outfits that always seem to have bold shoulders. Whether it’s an evening gown, a coat, or a day dress, they stand out distinctly either through their cutting, the pattern of the fabric or embellishment, emphasising her strong stance, her confidence despite her precarious position. Although Clare is the one at risk ‘passing’ as white, it’s Irene who hides behind her hat, concealing her identity. The clothes distinctly stand in for the characters themselves.
Perhaps the film’s most striking scene comes towards the middle when Irene and Clare are out at the dance organised by the ‘Negro Dance Committee’. Irene makes a comment whilst observing Clare dancing, from the corner, saying: “We’re all of us passing for something or other. Aren’t we?” She condones Clare yet she undeniably envies her as she reminds her of her own inability to be reckless. Clare’s desperate, incessant, and fierce attempts to go back to her roots and immerse herself in her own culture, reminds us of the inevitability of the illusion of pretence fading, as the innate desire to be true to oneself surfaces which Clare quite unapologetically reflects. Both characters, on the surface, seem to belong to distinct categories. However, as both characters yearn for the position of the other, it is revealed that those categories are society’s circumstantially imposed labels. The story shows the consequences of living in a society were racism looms large, hiding one’s identity to ‘pass’ as something that is acceptable by the society.
The story struck a personal chord with Hall whose mixed-race grandfather had ‘passed’ as white in 30s. The making of the film became a cathartic experience for Hall as she described the process illuminating and clarifying regarding her own past and decent.
The film underlines Larsen’s idea, that the concept of ‘passing’ is not specific to an age or a race in its core but rather how people everywhere, at every age, at one point or another comply with society’s desires, rules, and beliefs to blend in, to ‘pass’. Yet it also shows the misery this creates and its unsustainable nature as it goes against human nature to be free.
Both Thompson and Negga give superb performances, breathing life to Larsen’s complex characters, conveying feelings of frustration, yearning and desire through mere glances. With nostalgic costumes, the jazz music that plays over shots of brownstone buildings of the city, the dramatic close-ups and the chiaroscuro effect, Hall captures the spirit of a bygone age, transporting us back to New York in the 20s.
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
On Wednesday, we went on our long-anticipated Documenting Fashion excursion to Guildhall Art Gallery’s new exhibition, Noël Coward: Art & Style. The exhibition, that opened on June 14 and will run until late December, offers a behind-the-curtain view into the glamorous world of prolific British playwright and ‘Renaissance man’ Noël Coward.
As a gay man from a working-class background, he was an outsider to his environment in many ways, and as a result constructed his image meticulously. In both his personal life and on stage, he strove for a luxurious kind of ‘playful glamour’ and Guildhall Art Gallery thus curates a striking display of Coward’s rich visual realm.
Structured loosely chronologically, we are taken on an intimate journey through Noël Coward’s life. The exhibition greets us with the playwright’s famous fashion trademark: the silk dressing gown. Tied unusually – as he always did – to the side, the mannequin poses nonchalantly with hand-in-pocket. The other respectably gloved hand holds a long cigarette holder. This exhibit presents such an evocative quality of Coward: the man who was ‘determined to travel through life first class’.
We are invited to examine an array of Coward’s pristinely preserved makeup tools and behind-the-scenes sketches of the costume design for iconic stage songs such as ‘Dance Little Lady’ from This Year of Grace (1928). Another section of the exhibition showcases black and white photographs of Coward with stars like Marlene Dietrich and Lauren Bacall, emblems of Hollywood glamour during his time in America.
A particularly striking element of the exhibition was the exhibition’s evocative display of clothing. On a raised semi-circular platform a white satin bias-cut evening dress with a white silk belt is displayed, that drapes gracefully to the floor. The neckline is decorated with a delicate artificial gardenia. This is a modern reconstruction of the dress that Gertrude Lawrence wore in Act I of Private Lives (1930) originally designed by British couturier Edward Henry Molyneux. The backdrop is a deep, midnight blue backlit art deco-style panel; the colour and lighting seems to accentuate the cool, bewitching, and glamorous aura of the dress. With the mannequin being physically raised on the platform, it evokes a sense of grandeur and celebrity.
Another experimental display of dress is a dark red chiffon dress with taffeta ruffles designed by Sir Norman Bishop Hartnell, a designer who worked often for Noël Coward. On a seventeenth-century Queen Anne chaise longue in a dusky pink velvet, the dress is draped, as if it still holds the memory of being worn on a reclining, celebrity body.
His luxury image translated into all aspects of his life, and Art & Style shows a section of the ostentatious antique furniture that adorned his homes. In his later life he moved to Jamaica, a country he felt great love towards, and began to paint landscapes of the country – a hobby into which the exhibition provides a personal peek.
A final section of the exhibition displays contemporary dress designs inspired by Coward and his world, by American designer Anna Sui. It bids us farewell with a final room that play videos of his performances, and even personal home videos of him and his friends.
Noël Coward: Art & Style presents us with the opulent chicness of the inter-war years of celebrity glamour, as well as a never-seen-before glimpse into the visual artefacts of his personal life.
Entry to the exhibition is free.
By Kathryn Reed
Noel Coward, Another Magazine, https://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/2203/noel-coward