Recently, I had the pleasure of watching The First Monday in May after at last finding it online (this took an unhealthy amount of time searching the depths of the internet as its UK debut is not until September, I suppose patience is a virtue that I lack). Ever since watching the trailer earlier this year I have anxiously awaited its release. The film marks the first time the Met gala has been the subject of a full-length documentary, and closely scrutinized by a relative fashion and art industry outsider. Critically acclaimed director Andrew Rossi has previously focused the attentions of his documentaries on industries such as journalism and education including, Page One: Inside the New York Times and Ivory Tower, but never the opaque fashion or art worlds.
The trailer promises to follow the creative process–with unprecedented access–behind the curation of “China: Through The Looking Glass,” the museum’s 2015 spring exhibition curated by Andrew Bolton exploring Chinese-inspired Western fashions, and an exclusive look at what it takes to organize the logistical Everest that is Met Gala. Co-Chaired by Vogue Editor-in-Chief, Anna Wintour, the Gala has recently become known as the “super bowl of social fashion events”. It not only marks the grand opening of the spring exhibition, in this case “China”, but also functions to fundraise the Costume Institute’s operating budget for the entire year. #NoPressure
Overall, I immensely enjoyed the film, and do highly recommend watching it now that its on iTunes. However, I found that although it lived up to what it promised to deliver, and beyond in many senses (interviews with Harold Koda, Karl Lagerfeld and Jean Paul Gautier in particular provided unique perspectives on the “Is Fashion Art?” debate), it missed an important opportunity to examine the Met Gala’s cultural significance within the fashion industry beyond its connections to celebrity culture. The film only briefly paid homage to former Vogue Editor, Diana Vreeland, whose contributions as a “special consultant” to Met in the 1970s (she joined in ’73) are largely credited with reinvigorating public interest in the Institute. And furthermore, it entirely overlooked the Costume Institute and the Gala’s deep connections with the development of the American fashion industry; especially the key role both played in establishing American designer sportswear as a legitimate alternative to Parisian haute couture in the post WWII era.
Indeed, since its founding in 1940 the Costume Institute has been an advocate for American sportswear. Not only did it function as a historical resource for New York-based fashion and theatre designers, it also served to establish the intellectual community and rhetoric needed to exalt the virtues of American fashion to the world, including words now commonly used: democratic, functional, rational and/or versatile. For example, when the Museum of Costume became The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum in 1945, it presented an exhibition called “American Fashions and Fabrics” in collaboration with sportswear designers such as Clarepotter and Claire McCardall to showcase the skills of American sportswear designers, or as former Costume Institute curator Richard Martin said, “represent the unceasing creativity of American fashion”.
Lastly, and perhaps most sadly, the documentary overlooked the critical roles Eleanor Lambert, the renowned fashion publicist behind the creation of Fashion Week, the International Best Dressed List and “Battle of Versailles”; and Dorothy Shaver – the groundbreaking President of Lord & Taylor – played in the gala’s creation. Both collaborated in establishing the COTY American Fashion Critics’ Awards (the precursor to today’s CFDA awards), whose first ceremonies interestingly took place on January 22, 1943, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Perhaps they knew they were on to something because in 1948, almost 70 years ago, Lambert and Shaver went on to establish the Party of the Year, an annual fundraiser now known as… the Met Gala.
Spectacular bodies: Paul Poiret and the display of Haute Couture (still working on it).
What prompted you to choose this subject?
I was struck by the ‘grand narratives’ that seemed to be applied to Paul Poiret’s work and life – his rise to stardom in the 1910s as the ‘king of fashion’, or as he was characterized at times Poiret ‘The Modernist,’ and his downfall in the postwar years as the couturier who would (ironically) ‘reject’ modernism. My work is an attempt at nuancing some of the assumptions that surround the couturier, notably in the years following the First World War, by looking at his involvement in the costuming of music-halls, his use of actresses in advertisements, and the relationships of power between these performers, their audience, the couture clientele and the (bourgeois) couturier.
Most inspiring research find so far?
Poiret’s acting role in Colette’s La Vagabonde (alongside Colette herself) shown at the Théâtre de l’Avenue in 1927. The fact that La Vagabonde has a sort of redemptive tone in its attempt to legitimize the hard-working actresses of the music-halls is particularly interesting in light of Poiret’s own difficulties in combining the sort of excess his persona and clothing were seen to produce and the bourgeois values of the Third Republic.
Favourite place to work?
I spent three days in Paris in the various buildings of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France for research on Poiret. The Richelieu site was a highlight, and I have to admit that consulting microfilms there made me feel that bit more professional.
Antwerp based alumna Elisa De Wyngaert, graduated from the Documenting Fashion MA in 2014. Counting Helmut Lang and Pierre Balmain among her research interests, Elisa has continued to write about fashion and contributed exhibition reviews to Belgian radio since leaving the Courtauld. After pursuing further study and undertaking work experience for Raf Simons and A.F.Vandevorst, she now works as a fashion curator at the MoMu Fashion Museum in Antwerp.
What made you want to study Dress History at the Courtauld?
I read Art History at the University of Leuven and wrote my MA dissertation on “The House of Balmain: Before and After Pierre Balmain”. This research process was new and fascinating to me, especially as it was very different from my previous art historical research. I found it challenging to analyse proper academic sources and it took longer to determine the correct methodology. That being said, it was exciting and I couldn’t wait to specialise in this kind of research, and to find the right academic guidance to do so. I believe I Google’d something along the lines of “Academic Fashion Studies”, and the course ‘Documenting Fashion’ at the Courtauld Institute of Art seemed to offer just what I was looking for. I knew Rebecca Arnold’s name because I proudly owned some of her books – it was a perfect match.
What were your personal highlights from the course?
Looking back, I think the strength of the course lies in its intensity: it was an unbelievably enriching year, both academically and personally. It was a high-paced course and it is astonishing how much you can learn in just one year. Being surrounded by fellow students who are as passionate as you are about their topic is inspirational, and, it goes without saying, having Rebecca as a tutor was priceless. Not only is she an outstanding scholar who challenges her students, she also has a great sense of humour. Again a good match.
You wrote you dissertation on Helmut Lang, what was it that inspired you about his work?
I knew Helmut Lang’s work from images in books about fashion in the 1990s. He was, however, still an enigmatic designer to me: I was not prejudiced with knowledge, nor was I a longtime admirer of his work. I thought it was interesting that Helmut Lang decided to leave his fashion house in 2005 to “move on to art”. In this narrative, it appeared that being an artist is still in certain aspects regarded as higher than fashion in the hierarchy of the arts. After leaving his house, Lang decided to shred his archive and use the shredded pieces in an art installation. This, however, only happened after he had donated a large volume of his most interesting designs to fashion museums worldwide. The idea of a designer curating his own end, leaving the fashion world infected with infinite Helmut-Lang-nostalgia, was the starting point for my research. I got to appreciate the characteristics of Helmut Lang’s sensuous work, especially after studying it closely in the archives of the fashion museum in Bath and MoMu in Antwerp.
Since leaving the Courtauld you have worked for Raf Simons and A.F.Vandevorst, as a personal fan I would love to hear a little more about what your work experience was like with these?
I didn’t like the idea of becoming a “fashion writer high up in her ivory tower”, so I decided to do a course in Fashion Management and to get hands-on work experience with Antwerp designers. I undertook a short internship at Raf Simons. Raf Simons’ company in Antwerp is surprisingly small-scaled but has a high impact on fashion, which is an important characteristic for independent Antwerp designers. After that, I was hired by A.F.Vandevorst, where I worked for more than a year. I learned about the logistics behind the production of a collection. We often tend to focus on the shows and the magazine editorials, but we don’t always realise that after that there is quite a long and tumultuous road before those pieces end up safely in the stores and with the customer. A.F.Vandevorst has a small but strong creative team and the energy leading up to a fashion show is incredible. You can’t compare that to anything. In general, I was happy to learn that these brands are still authentic and true to their DNA and signature.
What else have you worked on since leaving the Courtauld?
During the week I worked at A.F.Vandevorst and on occasion I gave guided tours in the evening at MoMu. In the weekends, I created time and peace to focus on what I am most passionate about: the less commercial but more reflective side of fashion. I wrote a piece for Vestoj on Helmut Lang and I wrote some shorter articles for the new Bloomsbury Fashion Photography Archive. As a fashion critic, I reviewed fashion exhibitions for Klara, a Belgian radio station. By now, I think I have reviewed more than 20 fashion exhibitions, which proved to be not only insightful, but also my favorite adrenaline kick.
From what I understand you are currently working at MoMu as a curator. What does your work there entail and what current projects are you working on?
MoMu organises two major exhibitions a year, one of these focuses on a theme and the second one on the work of a living designer. We want to expand this offer with a (rotating) permanent exhibition on Belgian fashion and an online exhibition platform. At the moment, I am researching and writing about the designers and the pieces in the MoMu collection to prepare this project. MoMu actively acquires pieces by living designers, which ensures a rich and ever-growing contemporary collection. I discover new items every day and the challenge is to make a sensible selection of pieces per designer that haven’t been displayed too often, and that are telling for the signature of the designer.
Do you have any advice for budding dress historians? Particularly for those aspiring to work within fashion curation?
I think it is important to keep thinking about fashion the way we were taught to at the Courtauld. Often people look at fashion studies, and fashion in general, as something shallow and superficial. It can be of course, but we have to keep demonstrating how it is so much more than that: fashion remains an integral part of our society and daily lives. I know, from experience, it’s hard to find work within fashion curation. The only thing I can advise is to, even when you are working another job full-time, try to squeeze in some fashion history and research on the side and to stay both critical and passionate. And then maybe some serendipity?
We’re almost at the halfway point of our MA (shocking how quickly the time goes!) and wanted to share a little bit about ourselves now that we’re here. It’s been a pleasure for us all to contribute to this blog, one of the firsts of its kind!
Below are some photographs of us, and we’re each holding a photo of one of our favourite ladies from history (although it should be said that we all had a hard time narrowing it down). Don’t forget to read the captions closely – each one describes some of our History of Dress related interests.
Giovanna’s interests – Art fashion collaborations, Surrealist fashion, surface tensions, history of hair, and cats in fashion imagery
Documenting Fashion MA Course – Our leading ladies
As the New Years countdown ends, the other big countdown of the year begins…MA Application deadline at The Courtauld!
Your application is due January 8th (as if you needed reminding) so as you’re doing the final polish we thought we’d help you out with some tips from the current batch of Documenting Fashion MA students. Twelve months ago we too were hovering anxiously over our keyboards trying to make the few hundred words of our personal statement capture every thought and feeling we have ever had about Art History and Fashion. Hopefully the following will help you realize you don’t quite have to do that, and we’ve even squeezed some thoughts from former Documenting Fashion MAs, now PhD students (they’re really good at applications).
Best of luck to you all!
If you’re considering applying to the MA at The Courtauld, think about what particularly excites you about the course, how it relates to your experiences so far, and read everything that interests you around it.
– Lucy, PhD
Be prepared for a whirlwind nine months of looking and thinking about dress and fashion – it will be hectic, but it will enable you to hone your analytical and research skills, and to find out what it is that particularly fascinates you.
– Liz, PhD
My advice to any one considering applying to the MA Documenting Fashion is to read and research as much as possible so you can to really understand what the course entails. There are many ways to do this; the Courtauld website, the Documenting Fashion Blog and Instagram accounts and by simply getting in touch with us. We are more than happy to chat to prospective applicants about our experience.
– Giovanna, MA
When writing your personal statement for the application try to think about how your previous work, for example from your undergraduate studies, may be applicable to the course themes – even if you have never directly studied fashion or film and photography before. Be concise and to the point.
– Leah, MA
I applied to the Courtauld MA after a year of working at a communications consultancy with an undergraduate degree in International Relations. While I tried my hardest to work on projects related to the arts whilst at my job, it certainly was not directly related to the MA History of Art course and the Documenting Fashion special option. Therefore, highlighting the skills gained whilst at the consultancy (e.g. writing to various audiences) were important for my application. Additionally I underscored why, given my work experience, I was interested in the special option by discussing relevant papers taken (e.g. film studies courses), personal projects and/or internships etc.
– Carolina, MA
It is ok to admit your obsession for all things fashion related; pin-down what exactly attracts you to fashion (whether dress history itself, cultural history at large, or issues of identity, feminism, and so on).
– Aude, MA
The personal statement is not the time to play down your interest in fashion and what it is about its history that really makes you tick. Be articulate, be concise but remember why you are putting all this effort in—you really want to study dress and fashion at The Courtauld! This year the MAs all have very different academic backgrounds and it really enriches discussion to have such varying points of view. Don’t assume you’re ‘not right’ for the course.
Lesley Miller is Senior Curator of Textiles and Fashion at the V&A and Professor of Dress and Textile History at the University of Glasgow. She has led the curatorial team on the reinterpretation of the Europe 1600-1815 Galleries at the V&A over the last five years, and returns to her duties in Textiles and Fashion in 2016. Her current research projects focus on early modern dress and textiles.
Your first degree was in Hispanic Studies at the University of Glasgow, before you went on to pursue the History of Dress for an MA at The Courtauld. What led you to Dress History? How was the transition; did any interesting connections arise between the disciplines?
The sewing skills I learnt as a child provided the route into historical dress studies while seasonal treks around remnant shops and department stores handling materials laid the foundations for my knowledge of textiles. As a student, I spent my summer holidays making costumes for either theatrical performances or museum displays under the guidance of my mother. Penny Byrde’s book The Male Image alerted us to the existence of the Courtauld course. I was not optimistic that I had the qualifications – no history or art history at undergraduate level. But, I did have more than two modern European languages, and they have proved invaluable throughout my career. Initially, at the Courtauld, having come from a language and literature background without an image or an object in sight, my visual memory was extremely poor. A daily diet of dozens of slides at the Courtauld, a weekly diet of visiting art galleries and the Witt Library’s rich photograph collection soon had its impact – and I am still grateful for that exhilarating training.
What was the History of Dress course like when you studied at The Courtauld?
The History of Dress course was still a two-year programme in 1980 under Aileen Ribeiro’s stewardship: the first year was a survey from the classical world to the present day; the second comprised a special subject – in our case, ‘Dress in England and France, 1740-1790’ – and a 10,000-word dissertation on a subject of our choice – in my case, on men’s dress in Golden Age Spain. The 18th-century course provided my entrée into a PhD on 18th-century French silk manufacturing, while my dissertation put dress into the Golden Age drama I had studied at undergraduate level before I had any inkling of what the plays might have looked like on stage. That research also allowed me to understand the paintings and sculpture I had seen in art gallery, church and street in Castile during the time I had lived there, and the impact they might have had on contemporaries. At the end, I knew that I wanted to pursue research to PhD; that I didn’t want to work in a museum; and that teaching was how to share my newfound passion.
How did your time at The Courtauld make an impact upon you? Can you tell us about your PhD at Brighton University?
The Courtauld Institute and Brighton University were poles apart, the former a small, specialized monotechnic with an exclusive focus on art history (and conservation), quite precious in many ways and isolated from the wider University of London geographically and socially (those were its days at Portman Square). The latter was a polytechnic in which the Art and Design Faculty was developing what became an influential BA in Design History that encouraged the study of and debate around designed objects of all sorts, not just those of top quality for the highest level of society. Indeed, the study of elite art and luxury was at that time rather frowned upon, and study of the silk industry not obviously a happy fit with the more democratic principles of the institution. I was fortunate, however, to have Lou Taylor as my champion and supervisor, she having proposed the project on the basis that British designers and manufacturers from the 18th century onwards always bewailed the excellence of French design over their own. Their assumptions on why this was the case needed investigation. The Research Assistant’s post that I occupied for four years required a small amount of teaching – lectures for first year fashion textile students and the supervision of a few third year dissertations. These duties punctuated periods of research in France. Never having set foot in an art school in my life, I was not best equipped to understand the needs of these students – but was fortunate to have a mentor in Lou who alerted me to the desirability of thinking about my audience and how to engage it. Courtauld-style content and presentation were not going to do the trick!
You taught the History of Design for over 20 years – how did the field change over this time?
As you say, I did teach Design History for many years, and still do, though now only through my own particular specialism (textiles, dress and museology). Indeed, I was lucky to teach not only studio-based design students, but also Design History and Humanities undergraduates, Textiles and Dress History post-graduates (I went to Winchester in 1991 to help Barbara Burman set up an MA in Textile and Dress History, which continues in a slightly different form today in Glasgow under the able stewardship of Sally Tuckett) and Textile Conservation students. When I started out, the secondary literature was very limited, so we often had to work from primary sources – and thus my awareness of object-centred study evolved. Today, there is not only a good range of reliable texts introducing the field, but multiple theoretical approaches to the subject. Earlier historical periods have gradually assumed their place in the literature (in the early days Design History was almost exclusively 19th and 20th-century in focus) and luxury production is no longer denied. The ‘material turn’ in mainstream history is also informing the field, and now, ‘Material Culture History’ provides a more inclusive term for describing what all art and design historians do, alongside archaeologists, anthropologists, and some historians, all with slightly different inflections.
You’ve produced a lot of fascinating work on the 17th and 18th centuries, with an emphasis on silk – how did your research interests develop?
My interest in the early modern period developed through my MA special subject and dissertation, and then led directly into my PhD – and I have never let go. My initial interest in designers in the Lyon silk industry has gradually broadened into an investigation of other trades in manufacturing, notably that of manufacturer and that of salesman. Of course, my greatest pleasure is burrowing into archives to find the elusive documents I haven’t yet read – or to explore in more depth the manufacturers who emerge from my work on V&A objects. A classic example is my recent introduction to a facsimile of a merchant’s sample book of 1764, kept in the V&A collections. The identification of manufacturers’ initials in this book has given me the perfect excuse to frequent that great French gastronomic centre again – and appreciate how archive-management has evolved. Thirty years ago, I couldn’t quite believe that anyone would stick with the same subject for a life-time. Now, I understand the addiction – and, of course, now, it is much easier to travel and do research efficiently in short bursts, armed with laptop and digital camera instead of simply pencil and paper. Nonetheless, a prolonged period of time getting to know the place of production or consumption, as well as its archives, is invaluable. Silk is a very seductive fabric on which to focus, but, at the end of the day, it is the people who designed, made and wore silk that fascinate me.
You wrote a wonderful monograph on the Spanish fashion designer, Cristóbal Balenciaga. What led you to focus on Balenciaga? What do you think of the house today?
Ironically, my monograph – not wonderful, but certainly one of the first serious attempts at an analytical approach to understanding a fashion designer’s reputation through his work and context – was the result of failure. Thanks to Aileen’s recommendation, as I was finishing my PhD, Batsford commissioned me to write a book on dress in Golden Age Spain, one of a series on Dress and Civilisation. Unfortunately, the first two books in the series did not sell as well as anticipated, and since I was lagging behind (PhD dissertations never take as little time to write as one imagines), my contract was cancelled. Within a month, however, Batsford decided to launch its Fashion Designer series, asking me whether I might like to take on Balenciaga. I had French and Spanish and some knowledge of the corresponding cultures and their art, and had much appreciated the pioneering Balenciaga exhibition at the Musée des Tissus in Lyon in the first year of my PhD, which underlined the designer’s debt to textiles. Understanding of historical dress was fundamental in the case of a designer whose oeuvre owes a great debt to dress from 17th – 19th centuries. I accepted with alacrity, on the pragmatic basis that I needed to develop understanding of 20th-century fashion and textiles, if I were to teach in an art school. It is salutary to realise that in 1993, when the first edition of my book was published, there was only one other monograph on Balenciaga and little substantial on couture history. Now, one trips over such literature astoundingly frequently – and the number of student dissertations on Balenciaga is legion. As I prepare the third edition, to coincide with the V&A exhibition on Balenciaga’s Craft to open in 2017, I look forward to reflecting on the expansion in ‘Balenciaga Studies’ and to exploring with new eyes – mine and the exhibition’s curator Cassie Davies-Strodder – the expanded riches of the V&A collections. This is an exciting time for the House, as a new designer has just been appointed. Will he have the impact that Nicolas Ghesquière had in reviving its fortunes in the 1990s? Will we know by May 2017?
How have your academic studies contributed to or shaped your professional activities? What does your role at the V&A involve? What is your favourite aspect of it?
My academic studies are at the heart of all I have done and all I do in my professional life, and probably all I will do when I retire. They gave me the incentive to explore in detail objects and images in museums and documents in archives and libraries, and to be rigorous in analyzing them to formulate an argument or story. Fortunately, over the years, a great variety of different approaches to my subject have come from the tutelage of or discussion with inspiring colleagues, and I have been obliged to go through periods of being a generalist as well as a specialist, though I am a specialist by nature. My current role as Lead Curator of the Europe 1600-1815 Galleries refurbishment has been salutary in this respect, reminding me that dress and textiles do not exist in isolation, demanding that I think about them holistically and justify why I think it’s important to include them in these galleries. What I have enjoyed most about this five-year project is the teamwork collaborating with colleagues across the Museum, all with different specialisms, ideas and skills, all thinking about how we communicate with different audiences. At this stage in my career, both as Senior Curator for Textiles and Fashion at the V&A and Professor of Dress and Textiles Histories at Glasgow University, it is my pleasant responsibility to facilitate the development of the next generation of textile and dress specialists, whether through sharing subject expertise or advising on professional practice.
Could you share with us some of your goals for the future?
As you probably know, working in a museum means that institutional priorities dictate to a large extent what one’s goals are, and they can change from one year to the next. For me, a third edition of Balenciaga, this time with a focus on the V&A collections will be a short-term goal, once the Europe galleries open on 9 December. It is very exciting to imagine how beautiful this book will look in comparison with the first edition – and how much more accurate the V&A catalogue will become. I will also return to my role as one of the three specialists in the early modern period in textiles and dress, caring for the collections and ensuring both physical and intellectual access to them.
Then, of course, there are other projects that will come to fruition in the longer term, informed by my past research and executed largely in my own time: the annotated translation with my Courtauld friend, art historian Katie Scott, of a translation of the first manual of silk design published in Paris in 1765. Do look out for the small exhibition of 18th-century textiles from the Courtauld’s very own Harris collection next Spring outside the library, and the conference Fabrications that we are running on 5th March in the Research Forum. Then there is the completion of a monograph on 18th-century Lyonnais silk designer-manufacturers, and of a collaborative book project on European silks during the period of French dominance between 1660 and 1815. And, finally, in retirement, I hope to be back on the road to Spain and Portugal to continue my slightly strange academic perambulations.
Finally, do you have any advice for budding dress historians who aspire to have a career similar to yours?
Budding dress historians have to be persistent, prepared to take risks and grab opportunities, some of which may not seem terribly enticing at the time, either because of where they are or what they are. Just remember that menial and repetitive tasks often prepare you in a way that is not immediately obvious for intellectual as well as practical goals. Developing a reputation for working collaboratively and courteously is crucial.
As our subject is young and enticing to a variety of audiences, avoiding academic snobbery is a very good idea, whilst maintaining meticulous attention to detail in all you do. Aileen Ribeiro’s greatest advice to me was to learn to write at a variety of levels, in other words for different audiences – a stricture I probably didn’t appreciate at the time, but do now. I would add to that advice, that keeping on writing, even when you don’t actually have to prepare material to submit for deadlines, is important. And, of course, for ‘writing’, you could substitute ‘speaking’.
I have been lucky to have two careers, the first in teaching and the second in a national museum. I would not have been suited to the latter at the time I took up the former, so I would advocate open-mindedness as to what the future might hold. Don’t feel you have to do the same forever – even if you do want to retain your specialism, and do look beyond both museums and academia for opportunities. My main mantra may be contentious, but here it is: you can’t do dress without textiles satisfactorily, nor contemporary fashion without a background in historical styles and practices.