As awearer of vintage clothing, I come across numerous interesting garment labels. Some are minimalistic, some are extravagant, some quirky and some plain. One recurrent theme I have found on my clothing is that of the union workers label. I have two items which feature the label of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, or ILGWU, and one for the United Garment Makers of America, or UGMA.
The ILGWU was created in New York in 1900 and lasted until 1995, when the decline of American-made garments necessitated the merging of fabric worker unions. ILGWU merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union to form UNITE. UGMA was founded in New York in 1891 and similarly survived until its merging with the United Food and Commercial Workers union in 1994.
Purchasing union-made garments was a source of patriotic pride throughout the twentieth century. A consumer of union products supported, whether inadvertently or conscientiously, the cause of fair wages and safe working conditions. Their purchase also directly supported the consumer’s countrymen and women and the national economy. Union labels meant more than that a garment was simply a product of American labour, however. Many labels from both the ILGWU and UGMA include a unique code made up of numbers and letters which identify the specificities of an item’s production. With this code, a consumer could hypothetically locate and contact the exact union member who created his or her garment. This was vital in emphasising that clothing items were created by specific human beings. It could potentially have reminded consumers — distanced from the creation of clothing by ready-to-wear in the mid-twentieth century and fast fashion at the end of the century — that behind their clothes were living, breathing, tax-paying individuals who deserved fair wages and recognition, however minor, for their hard work.
The concepts of union labels and unique item codes have been largely lost today, as the majority of garments are exported to places without unions in order to reduce production costs. When you look at, say, the jumper from Primark and the jeans from Topshop which you were given for Christmas, chances are their tags will name foreign countries of origin, lands which most of us have never visited. The distance we feel from the people creating the clothes we wear is recreated and perpetuated by this physical global distance from where our clothes are manufactured.
In our last MA Documenting Fashion class before the end of term we discussed ‘women imagining women’ and examined the photography of Toni Frissell and Louise Dahl-Wolfe. Fortunately for us, London’s Fashion and Textile Museum currently has an exhibition of Dahl-Wolfe’s photography. A couple of my fellow MA Documenting Fashion students and I excitedly visited the exhibition together.Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Style of Her Ownappropriately began with an informative wall-text chronicling Dahl-Wolfe’s trajectory from art student to fashion photographer. A small hallway leading into the main exhibition space featured several of Dahl-Wolfe’s Harper’s Bazaar covers from the 1940s and 50s. These were not just prints of Bazaar covers, but the original magazines themselves held in simple white frames. The imperfect state of the worn magazines gave Dahl-Wolfe’s photographs a tangible materiality and reminded me that although her photographs were now presented in a museum context, most images in the exhibition were originally intended for the pages of a fashion magazine.
The main exhibition space began with examples of Dahl-Wolfe’s early photography. Experimental nudes and still lifes reflected Dahl-Wolfe’s training as an artist at the San Francisco Art Institute. I enjoyed how these early works revealed her skill for manipulating light and shadow that would define her fashion photography. These skills are also highlighted in Dahl-Wolfe’s Depression-era documentary style photographs of the residents of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Influenced by Edward Weston and Dorthea Lange, Dahl-Wolfe began her professional career in 1930. Her photographs of the impoverished community in Gatlinburg were later included in a group photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1937.
In 1936 Dahl-Wolfe became a staff photographer for Harper’s Bazaar where over the next 22 years she would produce 86 covers, 600 color pages, and thousands of black and white portraits.The exhibition featured numerous examples of Dahl-Wolfe’s fashion photography, making it impossible to choose a favorite. Among my favorites however, is the above photograph of a halter dress by Brigance taken in 1954 at Palm Beach. This image exemplifies Dahl-Wolfe expertise in light and shadow, capturing fashions in natural, outdoor settings, and rendering the subject as confident and at ease. As this image suggests, Dahl-Wolfe’s fashion photographs are shockingly modern and the influence of her dynamic images on contemporary fashion photography is astounding.
In addition to her success in fashion photography, Dahl-Wolfe continually produced portraits throughout her career. The exhibition showcased her portraits of Hollywood stars and cultural figures. Much like the subjects of her fashion images, Dahl-Wolfe’s portraits capture natural poses and the relaxed confidence of her sitters.
An unexpected yet delightful addition to the exhibition was a reproduced set of one of Dahl-Wolfe’s Harper’s Bazaar covers. Sitting on a stepped platform, a mannequin wears a bright yellow, striped 1950s play-suit and matching yellow accessories that stand out against an orange, blue, and green vinyl wall decal meant to replicate the original tiled backdrop of Dahl-Wolfe’s photograph. This scene brings the 1950s-magazine cover to life, once again adding to the materiality of the exhibition. Overall, the Fashion and Textile Museum’s exhibition beautifully presented Dahl-Wolfe’s stunning photographs and successfully highlighted the photographer’s contribution to fashion photography.
Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Style of Her Own is on at Fashion and Textile Museum until 21 January, 2018.
Miwa Yanagi’s 1990s photography series, Elevator Girl, presents a fascinating look at how fashion and photography can come together for a cultural critique. Yanagi studied textile design at the Kyoto City University of Arts, and incorporated this knowledge with a newfound interest in photography and performance art into one project. Beginning in the early 20th century, Japanese department stores hired beautiful, young women to operate the elevators in their buildings. She was made to dress up in the same outfit every day, and sit in a box repeating the same motions over and over again. The elevator girl was clearly a sexual object that represented the traditional patriarchal oppression of women in society, yet she was also a modern woman of the world that had a paying job and dressed in a contemporary, sophisticated manner. Yanagi’s photographs explore the traditional pressure and oppression that women still face in modern society. Take Elevator Girl House 1F, which shows rows of uniformed elevator girls displayed in a glass case.
They are dressed in identical red uniforms consisting of a skirt and double-breasted jacket, complete with a matching red hat and white pumps. They are each posed in a stiff, mannequin-like fashion within the glass display cases. The photograph invites the viewer onto the moving walkway to observe the models as if they are commodities to be bought and sold. Uniforms are powerful tools, in that they invite an immediate response of recognition. When you see someone in an army uniform, you automatically assume they must be a soldier of some kind. The red uniforms in Yanagi’s photograph give the viewer that sense of recognition to the elevator girls, but puts them in a different context. There is a simultaneous familiarity and alienation – the girls are recognizable in their uniforms and remain in a display context; however, they are now overtly the commodities in an endless row. There is also a sense of alienation in their similarity. The reflections of the lights above on the glass cases obscures their facial features. This coupled with their identical outfits makes them almost indistinguishable from one another.
Miwa Yanagi’s work in the Elevator Girl series investigates Japanese popular culture and consumer culture by appropriating their themes and satirizing them. Her series takes the patriarchal image of the elevator girl and uses it to shed light on the pressure and inequality Japanese women face. The photographs themselves resemble glossy fashion advertisements, thus criticizing both the way in which women are thought of as commodities and the consumer culture that gripped Japan as well. The ritualized performance of the elevator girl, the repetitive motions she makes everyday, the identical outfit she wore to other women, and the pressure put on her to appear alluring and youthful, is representative of the standardized roles women of any profession or status are expected to play. Her photographs increase the viewer’s feeling that there is something problematic about the elevator girls through a heightened sense of unreality that she achieves by placing the girls in eerily familiar, yet surreal settings. While her photographs in the Elevator Girl series are glossy, beautiful, and eye catching, they leave the viewer feeling unsettled, which is precisely their job.
Paris is often romanticized as a dream-like vision; the bustling banks overflow with cafés as sophisticated Parisian dwellers enchant our imagination. Chaïm Soutine addresses this imagined ideal of the Parisian streets with his vivid portraiture in Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys, which depicts the quotidian worker in Paris thus highlighting the mundane and unglamorous. Soutine personally related to these workers he depicted; after emerging as an acclaimed artist in 1922 after years of humble work, Soutine felt out of place in this new bourgeois realm. Through acute attention to his subjects’ uniforms, Soutine reveals a complex narrative of both the discomfort of the service men and women he depicts in their high-class workplace, and his own apprehension about his newfound fame. Both uncomfortable in their given uniforms, Soutine and his subjects feel like outsiders in a bourgeois society.
The pair of galleries on the top floor of the Courtauld Gallery guide the viewer on a rich visual journey through twenty-one of Soutine’s portraits organized primarily by his sitter’s occupation. Soutine’s thick application of velvety reds and dark blues dominate the majority of the portraits’ backgrounds and bring a richness and warmth to the space that feel secure and familiar. This visual ease juxtaposes with the discomfort of the subjects in the portraits.
Soutine’s sitters, primarily valets, bellboys, pastry cooks, waiters, or chambermaids, appear deeply uncomfortable. Their bodily proportions are distorted in an unsettling manner, their facial expressions are scornful, and their brows are furrowed—all projecting to the viewer the discomfort in their uniform both physically and emotionally. The subjects look tense in their dress, and their uniforms appear stiff and ill-fitting. This is particularly poignant in The Chambermaid and Valet.
The Chambermaid’s hands are clasped tightly in front of her apron, her elbows stiffly pinned to her side. Her rigid stance draws attention to her pink dress and white apron, which, as a chambermaid, needed to be pristine at all times to tend to hotel duties. The woman’s face is tired, and her tense body language suggests a discomfort in her role.
The Valet’s white apron, blue coat, and red vest envelop his figure. The red fabric surrounding his torso bunches to his right side, and his blue coat sleeves billow around his elbows and upper arms. Soutine’s wide brush strokes convey the folds in the valet’s white apron and mirror the wide fit of his uniform as a whole. The Valet’s ill-fitting uniform and disdainful expression suggest a similar discomfort and unhappiness in his role.
While coexisting in the realm of the Parisian bourgeois, Soutine and his sitters were uncomfortable in their uniforms. This tension suggests Soutine felt awkward and tense stepping into a position of great wealth and privilege, and related to the unpresuming service workers, who also felt a sense of discomfort. Through focusing on the dress of Parisian service workers, Soutine was able to channel some of his anxieties about his new uniform just as his subjects’ were confronted with their own.
The Courtauld Gallery’s Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys on view until 21 January 2018.
The Victoria & Albert Museum puts on a major fashion-related exhibition every year. This year’s show, Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, celebrates the 100th anniversary opening of Balenciaga’s first dressmaking shop in San Sebastian, Spain and the 80th anniversary opening of his haute couture house in Paris, France. The exhibition showcases some 120 outfits and accessories, with the majority of the collection from Balenciaga’s 1950s and ‘60s-era.
The exhibition is housed in a cosy two level space within the V&A. On the ground floor, visitors are led in a counter-clockwise direction between themed window displays of exquisite Balenciaga designs. Each row of display focuses on Balenciaga’s innovations in the female silhouette, broken down into the fundamental elements of modern ‘dress’, including cut, fabric, form, and embellishments.
Balenciaga’s pioneering interpretation of the modern female silhouette was characterized by simplistic straight lines, bulky volume at the back, and obliteration of the waistlines which resulted in the abstraction of the body. For example, the trapeze-shaped volume in his ‘baby doll’ dress blurred the contours of the body. It was surprising to learn that this loose-fitted design was highly controversial at the time, considering how the ‘baby doll’ dress is now so widely adopted and replicated today. If I remember correctly, the baby doll is part of the basic-wear line of Zara and H&M.
Balenciaga’s later designs of the 1960s and ‘70s are characterized by the increasingly architectural shapes in his garments, such as the flared lantern sleeves. Balenciaga worked closely with fabric manufactures, like the Swiss company, Abraham, to produce innovative fabrics such as the lightweight ‘gazar’ silk which could hold the elaborate shapes without cumbersome supportive structures inside.
Finally, the ground floor ends with some of Balenciaga’s most iconic designs such as the ‘unsexy sack’ which eradicated a pinched waist altogether, the ‘semi-fit dress’ which was only fitted in the front but loose in the back, and the three-quarter bracelet sleeve jacket with the stand-away collars which allowed for the display of jewellery at the neck and wrists. These designs contrasted sharply with the dominant, and conventional, waist-hugging, hourglass shape favoured by his contemporary competitors.
Heading upstairs, visitors are welcomed into a high-ceiling, well-lit room. Unlike the first half of the exhibition, which highlighted Balenciaga’s experiment in silhouette, his skills and ingenious designs, the second half focuses on Balenciaga’s legacy and the vast array of designers he has influenced.
We see from the displays that Balenciaga’s commitment to minimalism has been adopted by designers such as Emanuel Ungaro, Rick Owens, and J.W Anderson. Balenciaga’s emphasis on shape and volume that stood away from body has influenced the likes of Molly Goddard, and Rei Kawakubo. Balenciaga’s innovative pattern cutting and adoption of new materials has influenced designers like Issey Miyake, McQueen, Alaia, and a whole wave of designers who came after him. Like Christian Dior once said, ““Haute Couture is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga. We other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the direction he gives.”
Today, Balenciaga is known more for its streetwear-inspired, knitted, high-top sneakers and oversized hoodies, than for its radically abstracted haute couture dress designs. The V&A exhibition serves as a worthy reminder that it was Balenciaga who laid the foundations for many of the basic dress designs in the western wardrobe that we may take for granted today.
After seeing the Balenciaga exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum recently, and due to the hype around the Spanish designer that Paris saw shine, I decided to share with you another great Spanish creator that succeeded in the international fashion mecca. “El prestigio queda, la fama es efímera”, meaning “the prestige is permanent, fame is ephemeral,” is one of the phrases attributed to Cristóbal Balenciaga; and, in this case, applicable Spanish couturier Antonio Cánovas del Castillo who established himself among the big names of couture in The City of Light. We saw one of his in our visit to the Met Museum Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion exhibition, where I remember thinking that his story and creations need to be shared more often, so here it is a snippet.
Maybe you know all about Castillo, or on the contrary his name doesn’t sound familiar; or maybe, if you’re studying the restoration of Spanish Bourbon Monarchy in the 19th Century, you might think I’m talking about its first Prime Minister. You’re not far too off. Seeing his name next to the name “Lanvin,” might give you a hint of who I’m talking about.
Born in Madrid in 1908, grandnephew of the Spanish Prime Minister of the same name, Castillo left for Paris at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, escaping from the republican forces.
In 1951 Paris Match reported with an unusual realism, the crude situation that Castillo went through when he migrated, “with 32 trunks, suitcases and various packages, 26 years old and 18 francs in his pocket”, forced to live a life of what the reporter described as a “Russian migrant existence.” However, his luck changed quickly, and in a few months Castillo was initiated in the fashion world designing jewellery and accessories for Coco Chanel, thanks to the intervention of Misia Sert (famous pianist in Paris). Years later, despite of his differences (or because of them), Chanel affirmed about Castillo: “He has a kind of a latent genious. With him one must approach him as a ferret to make him get out of his burrow. Then it’s marvelous…”
Between 1937 and 1945 he worked for Paquin and Piguet, and even collaborated with Cocteau in his film “The Beauty and the Beast.” This was also the year when Elizabeth Arden convinced him to go to New York, where he became the house designer, and he started working for Broadway productions and the New York Metropolitan Opera.
In 1950 Castillo received a call from the Countess of Polignac, Jean Marie-Blanche (daughter of Jeanne Lanvin) who, following the death of Jeanne Lanvin in 1946, was looking for a head designer to revitalise the salon. His presentation was spectacular, with a collection of white sateen dresses. The success and recognition of his work was such that his name became a part of the brand, including its presence on the gowns’ labels.
He knew how to leave an imprint of his personality on his creations, without ever losing the “Lanvin” style of tailored dresses, full skirts and ankle lengths, and those feminine and defined shapes despite all the volume.
At Lanvin, Castillo experienced the golden age of his career as a couturier. For 13 years, he mastered collection after collection, gained the respect and love of the most demanding Parisian and international public, situating the name of the house and his own among the big names of haute couture at its peak time. In 1963 Castillo decided to establish his own couture house, only open for four years, with the unconditional support of two of his most faithful clients, Barbara Hutton and Gloria Guiness. During this time, he worked for private clients, theatre and film, which brought him a Tony Award for Best Costume Design for Goldilocks (musical) in 1959 and an Oscar for Best Costume Design for the British film Nicholas and Alexandra in 1971 (shared with Yvonne Blake).
As a final note, in 1961 Castillo hired a very young Dominican designer living in Madrid named Óscar de la Renta, but that is another story.
With our essays handed in and the end of term in sight, the MA Documenting Fashion class caught the train from Waterloo to that great red royal palace on the Thames, Hampton Court. The Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection was the reason for our visit, and we were welcomed into the archives by curator Eleri Lynn, fresh from the opening of her new exhibition at Kensington Palace, ‘Diana: Her Fashion Story.’ The Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection comprises dress worn by members of the Royal Family, by officials and dignitaries undertaking ceremonial roles, and court dress. The collection dates from the 18th to the late 20th century.
In keeping with our course’s period of specialism, Lynn had selected pieces from 1920-1960 worn by young women on occasion of their presentation at court. After making their entrance into society in this way, the young women were permitted to attend court events and mix with the rest of the aristocracy; many would use the opportunity to catch the eye of an eligible young man and marry. Whether you were a young debutante or a sponsor – usually the girl’s mother, mother-in-law or guardian – there were strict rules about how to dress issued by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. Gowns were white or pale in colour, with a train of specified length; three white feathers were worn in the hair to recall the emblem of the Prince of Wales; gloves were worn, and a fan carried. Slight shifts occurred over time, before the ceremony was abolished in 1958; Prince Phillip reportedly thought it ‘daft’ and Princess Margaret famously declared that ‘we had to put a stop to it … every tart in London was getting in!’
Delving into the boxes, we found a range of dresses and trains, most of them worn from the shoulder, crafted from the most luxurious and decadent fabrics. Freed from their layers of conservation tissue paper: a beige net dress worn for the 22nd July 1926 presentation by Miss Fraser made by Jays of London; a sequined ivory train; a salmon pink silk velvet train with silver beading worn by Lady Eversham in 1926, a highlight.
The boxes kept coming. A tasseled iridescent green gown with silver trim worn by Beatrice Pease, who later became Countess of Portsmouth, was handled with great care, likely as it was to split or shatter as a result of the chemical dyes used at the turn of the century, too heavy on tin. A pale blue silk georgette dress with black lace and ribbons (conservation efforts on the lace are in evidence) betray the fact that its wearer in 1937, sponsor Lady Gwendoline Benn, was in mourning. These were hugely sentimental dresses, many of which, when gifted, came with the original invitations, anecdotes and photographs of their first outing.
A huge thank you to Eleri for showing us these treasures. We spent the rest of the day waltzing around Henry VIII’s rooms and taking a turn around the splendid gardens, planning a further trip for when the flowers are in bloom.