Well, I may as well admit it, I love fashion magazine gift lists. There is just something so optimistic in the boundless consumerism and bright colours that collide on page after page of present ‘ideas.’ These spreads speak to both the magazine’s notion of its own taste and identity – and that of its readers – as well as its editors’ ability to search and edit what’s on offer into a comprehensive and easily scanned digest.
Here are some of my favourite aspects of these yearly lists, with examples from vintage December editions of American Harper’s Bazaar to liven up the holiday period:
Scale & Layout – on these pages there is an Alice in Wonderland feeling to the tumbling images of individual gifts, which no longer adhere to real life scale. Suddenly perfume bottles are huge, sweaters tiny, nothing relates to normal expectations. In 2008, a bracelet, a coffee table book, a set of dominos and a ring were suddenly all the same size. While in 1933 things were even less rational – with gold sandals, earrings and a dachshund dog all somehow fitting in the same little frames. It is a baffling, yet exciting free for all to create a dynamic layout to entice your eye … and hopefully prompt purchases …
Typologies – these range from mundane to bizarre in the ways various potential recipients are categorised by a made up title, and group of possible presents. I like 1922’s offerings including feathered fans and vanity box ‘to please the Debutante,’ a whole page of ‘gift suggestions for the fastidious woman of all ages,’ and potential gifts for that difficult group of women ‘of many minds and tastes.’
Excess – nothing is too grand to be part of the gift list, this is after all the realm of fashion and fantasy. Indeed, amongst the yearly jewels, furs and golden gewgaws, in 1979 the magazine suggested that what American women really wanted for Christmas was an eligible bachelor. And it listed 10 possible candidates, ranging from Monaco’s Prince Albert to film producer Robert Evans.
Contemporary Mores – the lists also reveal what is deemed most desirable, contemporary and fabulous in any given year. This insight means that we learn how alluring silver asparagus tongs were in 1904, the loveliness of a rubberised satin, jewel-buttoned raincoat from Bonwit Teller in 1941, and the high tech charm of a speaker phone with auto dial in 1986.
Happy Holidays, and may you receive everything on your own personal wish list…
This illustrated fantasy world of fashion was published in the 1947 to 1948 Christmas issue of Femina magazine. Femina was founded in February 1901 by Pierre Lafitte in Paris and focussed on “the real woman, the French woman raised in the best tradition of elegance, bon ton and grace.” Published on a bimonthly basis, Femina was aimed at an affluent readership of modern, urban, French women, who were not only encouraged to shop and dress like the social elite, but to be interested in culture, literature and politics. Femina reached its peak readership with around 40,000 readers in 1934 to 1935, and, uniquely, was edited and staffed by women only. In addition to influencing its normal readership, Femina impacted Parisian fashion through dressmakers who often took Femina issues to their customers to show examples of the latest designs.
Femina’s higher price point is evident from the editorials, advertisements and design of this issue. Most of the editorials feature couture evening gowns rather than daywear, such as gowns to wear to the opera, and many of the illustrations and photographs are in colour. The large pages are luxuriously laid out with often considerable white space around the subject. Perfume, watch, jewellery and liquor advertisements express the celebratory nature of the issue. For instance, illustrated fireworks spell out the characteristics of a Lanvin Parfums wearer and a ‘dark Brilliance de Lenthéric’ perfume bottle replaces a regular Christmas tree ornament.
This double-page spread, called ‘VISIONS’, shows illustrator Baumgarter’s dream of fashion silhouettes traversing against an imagined background. His dream includes the latest designs by Lucien Lelong, Paquin, Maggy Rouff, Madeleine de Rauch, Nina Ricci, Balenciaga, Jacques Fath, Piguet, Pierre Balmain, and Dior. The slight blurriness helps to show that the illustration is a fantasy, which is less apparent when the illustration is digitised or photographed. The smoothness of the magazine’s paper is decisive in the experience of looking at the illustration: not only does it convey a kind of refinement that mirrors the luxury of the gowns, but the moderate glossiness helps to bring the illustration to life. Rather than looking at a photograph on a screen, moving the somewhat shiny illustration helps to create a tactile link to the gowns depicted and encourages the reader to imagine the volume and fabric of the designs.
Further adding to the experience is the thickness of the paper, which seems almost reluctant to open fully. Indeed, the quality of the paper has resulted in near perfect preservation, with the exception of the cover, for almost seventy years. In 1947, it would not have required a lady to be familiar with Femina to recognise the quality and lavishness of the magazine. Moreover, it perfectly answered the needs of a society whose faith in the strength of its fashion industry had to be restored and which craved the comfort and joy of luxury after half a decade of restrictions and loss.
The unveiling of Christmas windows in New York City prominently signals the approaching holiday season to New Yorkers and visitors alike. From mid-November onwards, stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, and Barney’s feature windows with elaborate fantasies more or less directly related to Christmas, which often include expensive designer dress, animated animal or Christmas puppets, music and copious amounts of glitter. Many of the windows take almost a year to design and create, continuing a tradition that has been shaping the look of New York for several decades. Perhaps the most famous windows are Bergdorf Goodman’s, whose Christmas window design process is shown in the 2013 documentary Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s and which were first created in the early 20th century. David Hoey, Bergdorf’s window dresser, explained that the 1930s windows were often surrealist, while the 1940s windows were patriotic and 1950 windows elegant. The spectacle shown in today’s windows did not occur until the mid-1970s.
This year’s Christmas windows are not only breath-taking and full of Christmas joy and fantasy, but also show great variety in themes and look. Perhaps the most clearly dedicated to Christmas, Macy’s windows are created around the theme of Believe by designer Roya Sullivan and encourage the viewer to believe in the magic of the holiday season. Similar to Macy’s window, Lord & Taylor’s 79th Christmas windows feature no products sold by the store and rather focus on creating an Enchanted Forest fantasy through animated animals. To engulf the viewer into the Christmas fauna fantasy, Lord & Taylor’s display includes an extension of the front of the store covered in leaves and lights and squirrel puppets.
Saks Fifth Avenue took sweetness in a more literal sense with displays on Land of 1000 Delights and The Nutcracker Sweet. The Land of 1000 Delights dedicates each window to a particular designer whose work is surrounded by oversized sweets. The Nutcracker Sweet, inspired by Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, shows different animated scenes of the ballet’s characters in a landscape dominated by sweets. Bergdorf Goodman’s theme for the windows is unrelated to Christmas, instead favouring Destination Extraordinary. The all-green windows are inspired by nature, travel and the Natural History Museum and feature expensive designer dress in exotic fantasy locations.
The New York Christmas windows are on display until just after New Year.
It’s December, the ice rink is up and running in the Somerset House courtyard, and we couldn’t be more excited for Christmas and, more importantly, winter fashion! To get in the mood, we have been looking through the Documenting Fashion archives and reminiscing about the wintery display that Dr Rebecca Arnold, PhD student Alexis Romano and MA History of Dress alumnus Fruszina Befeki curated as part of last year’s Winter Mode exhibition in Somerset House. Their display, Winter Mode, showcased a group of fashion journals from the Courtauld’s collection, giving the reader tips for how look chic in the snow! Read on for a recap of their experiences!
Exhibition Update: Goodbye Summer, Hello Winter! Planning ‘Winter Mode’ by Alexis Romano
As they design fashion collections, with their clear link to upcoming seasons, designers must continually have the impression of being projected into the future. Fashion’s futurity affects shoppers too, who imagine their bodies in clothing that relates to seasonal elements. Co-curating the display Winter Mode (with Dr Rebecca Arnold and Fruzsina Befeki), one of the exhibitions that constitute Fashioning Winter at Somerset House, has resulted in a similar detachment between present and future for me. Summer and now autumn has been winter focused, as our display explores wintry fashion illustrations from the 1910s and 1920s, and specifically, how illustrators connected the subject to her environment, and represented at once the style, modernity, warmth and comfort of winter dress.
And as a rather warm autumn lingers, installation has already begun! While we, along with head curator Shonagh Marshall and dress historians such as Amy de la Haye, install our individual displays, technicians work to erect the ice skating rink that has inhabited the courtyard of Somerset House for fifteen years each winter. Both rink and exhibition open to the public on 11th November.
Although our installation is only two days away, there is still much to do. Our display showcases the fashion journals Gazette du Bon Ton, Femina and Journal des dames et des modes, and we’ve chosen the individual fashion plates as they relate to our three themes: The Elements, Fashion and Sport. We decided on the content months ago, but we must constantly adapt and adjust the display in view of issues that arise, relating to conservation or to display case constraints for example. And as display objects change so must our overall aesthetic. In the above photograph taken several weeks ago Fruzsina works on one of our mock exhibits! We are especially thankful to Antony Hopkins, Kilfinan Librarian, Head of Book, Witt and Conway Libraries at the Courtauld Institute, and Kate Edmondson, Paper Conservator at the Courtauld Gallery, for their support and guidance during this process.
Each journal on display will be identified by a caption that recalls an antique price tag, which we hope will carry viewers to a figurative shopping space, embellished by layers of history. And although they won’t be able to handle the journals on display, we’ve created a booklet for them to touch and peruse, with the help of the exhibition designer Amy Preston. It is our abstract interpretation of a historic fashion journal, and includes a fashion plate, editor’s letter, and other surprises. Will this intimate interaction heighten readers’ bodily sense of setting, and plunge them into winter? And those who attend some of the exhibitions’ associated events, such as our December workshop, will obtain their very own copy!
4 November, 2014
Installing ‘Winter Mode’ at Somerset House by Fruszi Befeki
I must admit, rather unprofessionally perhaps, that I was like a child on Christmas day during yesterday morning’s installation of Winter Mode, a display that I am curating with Dr Rebecca Arnold and Alexis Romano for Fashioning Winter at Somerset House. We had decided on our object list, approved labels, wrote condition reports and even devised a ‘dress rehearsal’ (see Alexis’s blog post from 4th November) well in advance of installation, but we had never seen all of these components come together.
We started our day by going over the contents of our to-do list, which we proceeded to tick off one by one. The two book cradles that Kate Edmondson, The Courtauld’s paper conservator, kindly made for us were ready. They were waiting for us at the studio, along with the two books they were designed to hold. We headed back to Rebecca’s office where we very carefully laid out all of the objects, to go over our sequence and arrangement one last time. This gave us the opportunity to make sure that we had the right viewing dynamic, with the different illustrations’ subjects connecting with one another through the direction of their gaze and body language. All of the fashionable ladies featured in the display are engaged in the act of looking, either at themselves, at art objects or at a winter scene, as if illustrators sought to remind their viewers of their own tendencies. We aimed to highlight this and to animate the display through their interaction.
At two o’clock we headed to the East Wing of Somerset House with boxes in tow, to find the empty vitrine waiting to be filled. Once Shonagh Marshall and Susan Thompson (head curator of Fashioning Winter and Somerset House exhibitions organiser, respectively) had arrived, we began by placing the textile panel, bound in a lovely Christopher Farr fabric, in the display case. Conservator Frances Halahan then carefully cleaned the surface so that no dust or microscopic insects would endanger the magazines once under glass. We then proceeded to arrange objects according to our well rehearsed plan and matched them up with their respective condition report so that Frances could verify our details’ accuracy.
Once the object labels arrived we reached the penultimate stage of installation; all that remained to do was meticulously review every arrangement before placing the glass over the display. We commissioned captions to look like vintage price tags in order to emphasise that, for many viewers, looking at these illustrations was like window-shopping. They are labelled according to one of three themes: Fashion, Sport, Battling the Elements. These refer not only to the scenes depicted, but also to the sense that each illustrator tried to convey to viewers: the thrill of ice-skating or the comfort of a warm coat on a frosty winter afternoon, for example.
With everything in position and checked, technicians expertly lifted and placed the glass over the case. As Shonagh pointed out, there is something quite satisfying about this final stage of installation. The glass seals and protects the objects, which will stay in place until the exhibition closes. Visitors are now welcome to move around, lean in close, and inspect the display. We hope you will enjoy Winter Mode!
We would like to thank the staff at Somerset House and at the Courtauld Institute of Art for their generous help on the day and leading up to the exhibition.
7 November 2014
A Walk Through ‘Fashioning Winter’ by Fruszi Befeki
Although we have been focusing on our own displays for Fashioning Winter in order to give you some behind the scenes access, now that the exhibition is up and running it is time to introduce you to the fascinating exhibits that make up the rest of the project. As with most shows, it really is best if you go see it in person, but for those who cannot make it, here are a few photographic guides to Somerset House’s winter fashion history treasure hunt.
Caroline Evans’s Skating on Film is directly next to our installation in Somerset House’s East Wing. The display focuses on footage of people skating in the early 20th century, and features clips from the Netherland’s Eye Filmmuseum.
These clips provide a parallel to Skate in Somerset House’s courtyard and encourage viewers to compare their own wardrobes and motions with sets of gestures from the past.
Amy de la Haye used her own collection of postcards by the illustrator Xavier Sager, and these depictions of fashionable women ice-skating and rollerblading are also in keeping with the theme of winter sports. Sager’s works are a combination of beautiful workmanship and a healthy dose of humour and when seen together, these illustrations reveal a connection between modernity, fashion and motion.
Sophia Hedman and Serge Martinov have created a highly conceptual display that focuses on the changing meanings of the colour white in Western fashion history. Exhibits are suspended in the Stamp stairwell, allowing viewers to walk around the objects displayed and admire them at a remarkably close range.
Ben Whyman’s Winter in Wartime is a timely exhibit that will resonate with audiences on the 100th anniversary year of the outbreak of the First World War. The display consists of contemporary illustrated newspaper cuttings, which demonstrate what members of the British Armed forces wore to keep warm at the Front.
If you head to the Great Arch Hall you will find Tory Turk’s and Beatrice Behlen’s respective exhibits facing each other, as if in conversation. Turk has created a “capsule archive” of skiing culture that includes gems such as a Burberry ladies’ ski suit c. 1927. The display maps the evolution of skiwear through an exciting assortment of objects.
While Tory Turk’s exhibit revolves around global skiing culture, Beatrice Behlen has focused on the vogue for skating in interwar London. The exhibition’s focal point, a pair of skates from the 1930s, is given a historical frame with the help of newspaper clippings and photographs. A map that shows viewers where one could find ice-rinks during this period illustrates just how popular the sport was at the time.
The Nelson Stair is now home to Alistair O’Neill’s display of photographer Angus McBean’s imaginative Christmas cards. Humourous, surreal, yet sensitive, these greeting cards, which span the period 1949 to 1985, illustrate a lifetime of creative experimentation.
Head curator Shonagh Marshall examines how the world of fairy tales inspire designers for the autumn/winter shows with the help of evocative literary excerpts and wonderful illustrations by Stephen Doherty. The three projections, set up in alcoves, transform Seamen’s Hall into a living storybook of fashion.