As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Kathryn, the co-editor of this blog, discusses ghostliness, layering necklaces for Zoom and the elusive photographer Nina Leen.
What are you wearing today?
A brown halter neck top over a striped button-down shirt. I didn’t realise that the shirt had a button missing when I picked it off the £1 rail in Brixton last week – hence the layering. Also: a long black skirt and brown work boots with paint on. They make me look artistic.
Has learning about dress history had any effect on your personal style?
Having seminars on Zoom has definitely made me wear more necklaces at once.
What is your dissertation about?
It’s on the photography of Nina Leen. She was born in Russia and moved to America in 1939; from then on, she became a really prolific photographer for Life magazine (and was one of the very first women to work there). She took some amazing, perceptive photographs of American culture and fashion in the 1940s and 1950s, but she’s an elusive figure and barely anything has been written about her. I’m interested in how her outsider status shaped the pictures, especially in the context of the all-American middle-class image that Life was promoting.
What is your favourite thing that you’ve worked on this year?
I wrote my first essay about the ghostliness of clothing that isn’t being worn – I find it so interesting to consider the reasons empty clothes can sometimes unsettle us. In the essay, I compared the shrouded figures in William Hope’s spirit photography with Eugène Atget’s photos of deserted Parisian shop windows. I was quite frightened while writing it, but it was really fun.
And your favourite image?
At the moment, my favourite is one by Nina Leen from Life’s December 1944 feature on teenagers. It documents a trend at the time for teenagers to wear masculine clothes, and I love this picture of a girl who had borrowed her dad and brother’s clothes to change into after school.
We caught up with Jessica Akerman – artist and research forum events co-ordinator – to discuss her wardrobe. In her spare time, Jessica has been dressing for London Fashion Week (Mary Katranzou last year, Paul Smith and Topshop this year), helping the models with the quick turnaround in between shows. She obviously has an avid interest in dress and fashion, whether she realises it or not, and follows the style instagrams @vonsono and @susiebubble, in between sourcing interesting pieces from carboots, charity shops, sample sales and vintage stores.
On the sunny Thursday lunchtime that we met, Jessica was wearing a fabulous corduroy pinafore from the shop Mint in Stoke Newington, bright blue sandals from Miista in Shacklewell Lane, and a collection of jewellery that included gold bird earrings bought in Westcliff-on-Sea (in a ‘fantastic second-hand shop’); a fun Swatch watch (‘I love Swatch, I love the designs, the colours’); plastic chunky rings; and a beautiful art-deco style pendant that contained strands of hair belonging to her two children. She was obviously suspicious about the prospect of being interviewed, and had brought along a change of clothes – her 1980s ‘jazzy shirt’ – but settled on the pinafore, which had its own interesting story to tell:
‘We were having our kitchen done up, and we didn’t have a washing machine, so I was spending most of my weekends in the laundrette – waiting for the washing to finish, wearing a tracksuit and a Friends of the Earth man’s anorak. I went and found this couple of really nice Cord pinafores in the sale space of Mint, put them aside, and went back to get some money out and check on the washing. When I went back to the shop, someone had put them back on the rack, and I nearly started crying. But the man who was working there took me around all of the rails, looking for the dress and looking on the arms of all the women in the shop. And then he found it, and sort of gently wrestled it off this girl, who gave it up begrudgingly… but he told her he would give her some money off her own purchases at the till. The thing is that I never buy clothes for myself, and I can never find anything that suits me, and I was feeling like a right trugger because I was in a tracksuit, and I’d been at the launderette… but it was a happy story in the end’.
Jessica has also had her hair recently re-dyed to its natural colour, and had painted her nails gold. We felt that this was important to mention, since she pointed these details out to us, and obviously has a keen awareness (as we dress historians do) of fashion not solely in terms of items of clothing, but all of the additional modifications that we attach to or adapt our bodies with. She was also enthusiastic to tell us about her Urban Outfitters brown leather bag, which was the product of some extensive (online) research, and brought over from the U.S. by her partner, taxes in addition. Unfortunately, she was somewhat disappointed by the quality, since the lining had already begun to tear. [If you are reading this, @urbanoutfitters, then please do get in touch and we can organise getting a replacement to Jessica]
When quizzed as to how she might describe her style, Jessica responded with the usual ‘hmmmm… I don’t know really’, ultimately settling on ‘eclectic’. I asked her how she negotiates ‘off-duty’ and ‘on-duty’ clothing – combining outfits for the Courtauld, doing the school run and being creative in her Ridley Road studio in Dalston. ‘I look for practicality mostly… I suppose it doesn’t differ too much between home and work, although I wear less make-up at home, and definitely dress up less’.
One of the favourite pieces that Jessica has ever owned is a 1980s dress with ruffled sleeves in green and black that she bought for £1 at a car boot sale in Somerset. ‘I was 8 months pregnant at the time, so I didn’t actually know if it would fit. But when Kit was about 4-months old I was able to go out, and that was very exciting… it was like I’d won a prize, especially because it was so inexpensive’.
Thank you very much Jessica, it was great to hear some stories from your wardrobe. If you’d like to find out more about Jessica’s creative work please go to: jessicaakerman.com
Professor Deborah Swallow is Märit Rausing Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art. Before coming to the Courtauld in 2004, she worked in various museums, including the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Victoria and Albert Museum, where she was head of the Indian department. Teaching in India for a year gave her a deep interest in the culture of the country, which she explored through the discipline of social anthropology and as a curator in the context of an art museum. While at the V&A she also oversaw the creation of the Nehru Gallery of Indian Art.
What are you wearing today?
Today I am wearing an older Indian jacket. It is made from a fabric that is normally used for shawls. It is a called a Nehru jacket, and the cut is based on India’s first independence Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It’s a man’s garment, and is very similar to the Achkan, which is North Indian court dress.
Where does the inspiration for your dress come from?
I started going to India in 1969 and wore what you would describe as ‘missionary dress.’ This was in the ‘60s so skirts were very short, but that wasn’t appropriate for India, so my mother made me a longer skirt. But I felt pressure to wear a sari. So I bought one for 45 rupees, but then I was told off because the quality wasn’t good enough for someone who would be lecturing at a university. So I stopped wearing saris because I couldn’t afford to buy good enough quality ones on my budget.
So I started to wear a shalwar kameez, which is long shirt over loose trousers. Now there is a very heavy Western influence on Indian dress, and Indian styles are subject to changing fashions, such as the length of the sleeves or trousers. There are also subtle regional and local variations.
Where do you get your clothes from?
I buy all my jackets readymade- I’m back and forth like a yo-yo so I’m never in India long enough to have them made for me! I get them in Jodhpur in the old town bazaar. Jodhpur trousers that are worn for horse riding actually originate in Jodhpur, because they’re horse riding people. The bazaar is seven stories tall, with really narrow staircases. It is absolutely full of textiles, both antique and new.
Do you feel that being the head of the Courtauld dictates the way you dress?
Yes, I feel I have to dress reasonably formally. I tend to wear a lot of structured clothing because it suits me. I have to wear things that are suitable for both day and evening. I wear a lot of trousers, as you might have noticed, because they are comfortable. These jackets are very practical because they can be worn over anything to be dressed up or dressed down. I can wear them over trousers like this, or over silk trousers to be more formal.
Libby [Debby’s PA] said that you keep a cupboard full of jackets at the Courtauld?
Yes I do, to put on if I need to, but it’s not very full at the moment. This jacket is really nice- it’s quilted. There is one quilted style from Jodhpur that I really want. It’s very long and made of velvet and normally dark green. Jodhpur is in Northern India so it’s desert and can get very cold at night. So this style is perfect, it’s like being wrapped in a divan.
Any other comments or clothing secrets?
A group of us from the Courtauld had our colours done once, so I know what goes with my complexion. I avoid yellows and browns and stick to reds and blues.