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)
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…
Truthfully, I’m rarely one for New Year’s resolutions and if I ever do commit to making a change, it’ll just so happen to be something which I’m already willing to reduce or eradicate in its entirety. This year, however, I’ve decided to truly revamp my attitude – and wardrobe! – by committing to only buying second-hand clothes.
For the last few years, I have made a concerted effort to buy a maximum of three garments which could be categorised under the term ‘fast-fashion’ a year and thus the goal seems attainable; however, this would invariably creep up to five or so items having fallen for the countless marketing ploys à la Black Friday and during other heavily advertised sale periods.
During the first few months of our MA, we have studied how people are drawn to buying clothes, often not out of necessity, but rather due to numerous social factors. Individuals, quite willingly, can be seduced through the socially acceptable (and usually passive act) of following a trend and statements such as ‘because they’re in fashion’ may be offered as a legitimate explanation for adopting any one of more items of clothing. Indeed, the wearer themselves might not even claim to know why they are wearing any one garment beyond this very reason. Such attitudes can create a unique position whereby those who subscribe to blindly following trends also police others to see who is adhering to any specific trend, passing judgement based on what they see. Furthermore, it is largely accepted that clothing forms a large part of the first impression we make on others; indeed, as a cohort, we each expressed the heightened considerations regarding our outfits and additional pressure placed for the first day of our MA, offering as it did for the majority, the first time meeting one another in person.
Such considerations in fashion – at least for me – evoke the much-quoted and adored cerulean blue scene in TheDevil Wears Prada where Miranda Priestly (played by Meryl Streep) quite literally gives Andrea (Andy) Sachs (played by Anne Hathaway) a dressing down after she shows her contempt for the fashion world, claiming to be ‘exempt’ from fashion (fig. 2). Priestly’s speech serves to suggest that Andy’s choice of jumper is the prime example of a trend being spotted at fashion shows and then trickling down to high-street retailers. In other words, people are unable to be removed from fashion and thus (sub)consciously make specific choices and associative statements with what they choose to wear. As philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky writes: ‘With fashion, human beings begin observing each other endlessly, appreciating each other’s looks, evaluating nuances of cut, colour, and pattern in dress.’ Moreover, it is this constant observation that has become all the more heightened through social media, and this is especially true of platforms that focus on the dissemination of images.
Indeed, my resolution to buy ‘nothing new’ relates to this constant observation, and perhaps unsurprisingly as a student of History of Dress, my desire to stand out and communicate specific messages in what I wear. Therefore, for me, buying vintage and second-hand is about making considered purchases, often over a period of a few months or even a year. It presents a new opportunity to literally trawl through vintage shops in the hopes of finding something incredible with expectations that may crumble upon seeing the fifth moth-ridden jumper in a row but can instantly be restored as soon as I’ve spotted the perfect jacket (fig.3 aka the dream jacket). Buying second-hand and vintage can certainly be a frustrating process, too, such as when an item you’ve been eyeing up is no longer available; or, the gut-wrenching moment when someone outbids you on an eBay listing in that *last* second, coupled with the misplaced confidence in thinking you were the only one who was going to bid on the item.
Moreover, where possible, I love reaching out to the buyer to see if they can offer any anecdotal information surrounding the garment to construct a complete mental image and history, ‘revealing the wearer’s identity, character or physiognomy,’ as analysed by Kitty Hauser. Without a doubt, one of my favourite vintage purchases included a beautiful hand-written note from its previous owner which outlined how treasured it had been, but also how it ‘will have another chapter in its fashion life’ which I think perfectly sums up the special feeling one might have when buying something second-hand.
Recently, I’ve found that compliments relating to clothes between friends and strangers alike are more increasingly being met with the following explanations: ‘It’s vintage’; ‘I’ve had it for [insert length of time]’; and, ‘I got it from a charity shop for a fiver’. Each of these explanations suggests a new way of justifying past and present purchases as individuals are becoming abundantly aware of the environmental implications of their purchases and want to alleviate guilt or the notion of being ‘part of the problem’. However, it also creates an issue that goes against the very origins of the second-hand clothes market, dating back to the 1700s, which was set up to help people purchase clothes at more affordable prices, something that Barbra Streisand’s Second Hand Rose notes as rendering it less desirable, an attitude which has greatly changed in recent years (fig. 4). Today’s appetite for vintage pieces can see prices skyrocket as specific eras and garments are (re)interpreted as trendy, once again creating the issue of affordability which has long defined – and plagued – the fashion industry.
THE NEED TO ACT
Recent conferences such as COP26 have put pressure on the need to truly change our consumer habits, particularly as statistics show that the fashion industry emits about the same quantity of greenhouse gases a year as the entire economies of France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined. This was reported in a recent McKinsey and Co report which found that the fashion industry alone had emitted a mind-blowing 2.1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2018.
Moreover, people in the United Kingdom buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe. In sum, the amount of clothes that many people in the UK own is nothing near a ‘normal’ amount as fewer people buy to last, the expectation that an item of clothing’s lifespan is limited to a mere few months, or a singular outing is a bleak state of affairs indeed. This is partly driven by the fact that 69% of new clothes are produced from synthetic fibres and plastics, set to reach an alarming 75% by 2030.
The statistics are alarming, and our desire to consume fashion leads to some of the worst working conditions, only exacerbated by fast-fashion retailers such as Pretty Little Thing introducing a mind-blowing 100% offduring last year’s Black Friday in a bid to get rid of excess stock and drum up publicity and excitement with its consumers (fig. 5).
In order to help track the individual impact of reducing our clothes consumption, initiatives such as the Count Us In ‘Wear Clothes to Last’ pledge work to calculate the estimated reduction in an individual’s carbon pollution throughout the year. At the time of writing, 1,709 people have signed the pledge.
Let us now turn our attention now to some of the solutions which have helped reduce my desire to buy new clothes.
HOW TO RESIST THE TEMPTATION
Unfollow brands and individuals who promote a fast-fashion lifestyle, especially if they are being sponsored by fast-fashion conglomerates to do so.
Tailor your cookies or use ad-blockers to help reduce the number of pop-up adverts you receive.
Unsubscribe from unnecessary marketing emails from fast-fashion brands
Actively search for sustainable alternatives.
HOW TO SHOP
Buy to last (and take care of your clothes!)
Donate/repurpose/sell unwanted clothes
Second hand, both online and in person
Vintage Shops and kilo Sales (details often found on Facebook)
Local Charity Shops
eBay; Etsy; Depop (@5thSeasonVintage is a personal favourite)
Vestiaire Collective; HEWI – premium brands
By making my pledge public, I am hoping to be held accountable by friends and family for any purchases I make throughout the year.
By Georgina Johnston-Watt
Hauser, Kitty, 2005, ‘The Fingerprint of the Second Skin,’ in Christopher Breward and Caroline Evans, eds., Fashion and Modernity, pp. 153-170
Lipovetsky, Gilles, 1994, ‘The Enchantment of Appearances,’ in The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy pp. 18-54
As the dissertation deadline looms, we’re spending some time getting to know the current MA Documenting Fashion students. Simona discusses growing up in her family’s fashion boutique, dress as a language and American screwball comedies from the 1930s.
Do you have an early fashion memory to share?
I have many early memories related to fashion. I often say that I was born among clothes: my grandfather started his textiles business in the south of Italy in the 1950s, which he shortly after turned into a menswear boutique. My father started working there at the end of the 1970s and then opened his own boutique in 2000, when I was just four years old. The boutique still exists in its original location and is currently run by my elder siblings, with the support of my father. I have many memories related to both my grandfather’s and my father’s businesses. As a child, I was extremely fascinated by the tactile qualities of clothes: I particularly loved passing my hand through the suits, perfectly hanging on their display racks, organised by colour, cut and fabric, and unfolding every shirt, sweater and pair of trousers to look at their smallest details, often deciding to try them on despite the obvious size mismatch. Some of my favourite memories involve a game I used to play in the boutique, where I would pretend to be a sales assistant with the support of our oldest employee, who would kindly and patiently play along, interpreting the role of ever different customers with the most bizarre requests. It was certainly good training – also because he taught me how to fold every item properly.
What is one thing you’ve learned about dress history that you wish more people knew?
That dress history in itself is not just about ‘clothes’. The general understanding of the concept of dress is so shallow that trying to explain to those who ask what it means to study it is quite complicated. I recently came across a picture in a fashion magazine with a text reading ‘I don’t understand what my clothes mean’, and I became obsessed with it. It made me think that this is precisely the reason why I decided to study dress history: to understand the meaning of these items that we put on our bodies – along with all the elements that compose our appearance – which possess a unique and incredible communicative power, even more immediate than words. The problem, however, is that this language is unknown to most people, and trying to decipher it without the right tools is practically impossible. Studying dress history gave me those tools, unlocking an immense universe which encompasses multiple fields, such as sociology, social anthropology, psychology, economics, and politics.
What is your favourite thing you’ve read this year?
Every paper or book I read thanks to this course was fascinating and challenging in its own way. However, to go back to what I was saying before about not knowing what the concept of ‘dress’ actually means: I would say one of the most important things we have analysed, at the very beginning of the MA, was Joanne B. Eicher and Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins’ ‘Definition and Classification of Dress: Implications for Analysis of Gender Roles’. As a long-time supporter of Judith Butler’s ideas on gender as performance, this paper furthered my understanding of how, in the societal context I am writing from, the most prominent social distinction communicated by dress is that of learned gender roles.
What is your dissertationabout?
My dissertation is about the intersection between star image, costume design and film genre. I am discussing the function and meaning of costumes in the context of the American screwball comedies of the 1930s, through a specific focus on the screen couple Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Howard Hawks’ 1938 movie Bringing Up Baby and George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, released in 1940. Throughout my academic career, I have been particularly interested in star studies and how this field relates to film and fashion. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Sophia Loren’s costumes in Vittorio De Sica’s 1963 comedy Ieri, Oggi, Domani, and, although through different lenses, I enjoyed the idea of following a similar path to conclude my MA. Comedy is one of the richest and most fascinating genres, in my opinion, and I believe there is much to be said about the implications of clothes and fashion when it comes to screen comedies.
Which outfit from dress history do you wish you could wear?
This is such a hard question! I will go with the one outfit that immediately came to my mind when I read this question, which is included in one of my favourite portraits and dress history images: Charles Frederick Worth’s evening ball gown worn by Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Sissi, in her 1865 portrait painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. It is just sublime. The off-the-shoulder neckline, the white satin mixed with tulle, with thousands of silver foil stars shimmering throughout the dress, matching the diamond edelweiss pins in her long, braided hair… I must have dreamt of a dress like this a thousand times in my childhood ‘princess’ fantasies, way before I became acquainted with this painting. Plus, what an unforgettable experience it would have been to be dressed by the father of haute couture himself!
The Documenting Fashion Blog will be on hiatus until September for the summer holiday. While you wait in anticipation for our return (and fresh posts from a new group of MAs), take a look at a few books recommended by our recent graduates.
Barbora: Fashion is Spinach by Elizabeth Hawes (Random House, 1938)
I based my second assignment of the year on Elizabeth Hawes, the sadly not well-known American designer and writer, after we saw her archive at the Brooklyn Museum. Hawes was pretty much a dress reformer in the 30s, urging for more ready-to-wear fashions as well as clothing for men that was less restrictive and unhygienic as the multiple layers they were required to wear by society all year round. Fashion Is Spinach is the first book by Hawes in which she takes on the fashion industry in a hilarious manner, questioning its principles, uncovering the way it operates, how copying works (something she herself has done as a young woman) and generally just ridicules the way fashion authorities dictate what is and is not stylish at a certain moment. Her other books are great too, but Fashion Is Spinach combines all the different aspects of the industry and the business. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and definitely the best book I read during the year. Also, I feel more people should know about Elizabeth Hawes and the amazing work she has done, so this recommendation was a no-brainer. Only problem is, it is a bit tricky to find it online. But the search is so worth it in the end!
Harriet: How LIFE Gets the Story by Stanley Rayfield (Doubleday, 1955)
I audibly gasped and was sternly shushed when I first opened this book one bleak day in the British Library. It documents the truly extraordinary lengths the magazine’s photojournalists went to best capture their subjects – from microscopic beings to Stalin’s successors; even Audrey Hepburn having her hair washed on the set of Sabrina. My favourite image is of Margaret Bouke-White dangling from a helicopter to get a better shot. As you do.
Jamie: Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present by Alison Matthews David (Bloomsbury, 2015)
I picked up the spine-tingling Fashion Victims for a bit of pleasure reading after the course finished in June. Filled with morbid, and occasionally gruesome, details about dangerous dress, Alison Matthew David’s book brings to light some obvious and not-so-obvious ways that Western fashion of the 19th and 20th centuries led to many untimely deaths. The author’s wonderful balance of detailed scholarship and engaging writing makes this book a truly enjoyable read. While I won’t divulge any of the shocking facts I learned (that’s for you to find out!), I will leave you to ponder a point raised in the introduction of this book: if clothing is supposed to protect the body from outside harm, why is it that it ‘fails spectacularly’ so often in the course of fashion history?
Sophie: Fashion: A Very Short Introduction by Rebecca Arnold (Oxford University Press, 2009)
I feel like I’m stating the obvious and cheekily doing some serious ‘Documenting Fashion’ ad-work here, but this small little book really is a lovely nice overview for anyone wishing to jump into all things related to fashion. If you’re going on holidays it’ll also fit snugly into your hand luggage…lucky you!
Yona: Fashion Since 1900 (2nd edition) by Amy de la Haye and Valerie Mendes (Thames and Hudson, 2010)
This book has been my first point of reference for both my historical fashion designs and my academic work. Even though the book covers an entire century of fashion in rather few pages, it gives a clear overview of fashionable styles and societal influences on fashion as well as interesting details. In addition to mainstream fashion, Fashion Since 1900 also explores subcultural dress and even cosmetics and accessories. Amazingly, this book covers the basics of everything that I have researched during the past years.
Dana: Fashioning London: Clothing and the Modern Metropolis by Christopher Breward (Berg, 2000)
I actually read it before the course started as it was recommended in our reading list, and I love how it goes into detail about the relationships between city life and fashion, which are very explicit in London. It’s an amazing book to learn more about the city’s history and the manner in which particular styles of dress became associated with this leading international city, ultimately challenging the dominance of Paris, Milan and New York. The author constructs an original history of clothing in London its manufacture, promotion and cultural meaning in the city, which was an amazing taster for the course, therefore I encourage everyone interested in the London’s history or living in London to read it.
Today, 18 July 2017, marks the bicentenary of the death of Jane Austen, author of classic novels such as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. Much of her work, and their subsequent adaptations, are set in the Regency era (broadly categorized as 1795-1820) and their fashions reflect that time. Jane herself was quite fond of fashionable dressing: letters from time spent living with her brother Henry in London mention visits to Grafton House for trimmings and hosiery, and to Bedford House for dress fabrics.
In order to keep abreast of the latest fashions, women of the Regency era consumed ladies’ magazines, among them the high quality La Belle Assemblée or Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine addressed particularly to the Ladies. John Bell first published Le Belle Assemblée in 1806 as a monthly source of prose, poetry, biographies, and fashion advice for leisured women. There is even reason to suspect that Jane Austen would have read La Belle Assemblée as one of her favourite nieces, Fanny Austen Knight, had an 1814 issue of that periodical among her possessions.
La Belle Assemblée’s price established it as a thoroughly affluent periodical. Its rival, the Lady’s Museum, cost 1s. in 1806, while La Belle Assemblée cost 2s. 6d. for black-and-white etchings and 3s. 6d. for hand-coloured illustrations. Though only two fashion plates were included with each issue, they were prepared by highly skilled illustrators, engravers, and painters. The 25cm x 16cm dimensions of this periodical further added to its luxury. Whether coloured or not, the sizable fashion plates are works of art in their own right, as their inclusion in museum collections around the world confirms.
John Bell’s wife Mrs. Bell was credited with the designs of many outfits seen in the plates of La Belle Assemblée. As a dressmaker in London known for extremely up-to-date fashion knowledge (she had foreign fashions imported for study twice each week), Mrs. Bell possessed a reputation for unbeatable fashion acumen. She was not just a dressmaker and designer however. Mrs. Bell, ever the visionary, invented the ‘Chapeau Bras,’ a foldable hood small enough to store in a bag, and a corset to reduce the appearance of pregnancy.
Plates from La Belle Assemblée reflect both minute and radical changes in fashion during the first three decades of the nineteenth century. From 1800-1820, differences in fabric, colour, and accessories set old and new fashions apart. The 1820s saw a gradual widening of sleeves and skirts as the decade progressed, morphing the columnar silhouette of the beginning of the century into the exaggerated hourglass shape of the early 1830s. In 1832, La Belle Assemblée merged with the Lady’s Magazine; the new Court Magazine and Belle Assemblée continued to publish the latest advances in fashion throughout the 1830s.
Jane Ashelford, ‘Perfect Cut and Fit’ in The Art of Dress: Clothes Through History 1500-1914 (London: National Trust, 1996), pp. 167-210
Margaret Beetham, ‘The ‘Fair Sex’ and the Magazine: The Early Ladies’ Journals’ in A Magazine of Her Own? Domesticity and Desire in the Women’s Magazine, 1800-1914 (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 17-34
Even after all these years, it is still a little surprise when graduation suddenly appears again on my calendar. My MA course at The Courtauld seems to rush by – nine months of seminars, visits, discussions and so much more. The most exciting aspect for me is always meeting the students as a group for the first time in October, and getting to know them and watching their responses to the images and ideas we discuss.
This year, I had the great pleasure of seeing Jamie, Dana, Barbora, Harriet, Yona and Sophie progress from early essays thinking about key methodologies and theorists, through film reviews, blog posts, formal essays and a virtual exhibition, to their final piece of work – a 10,000 word dissertation on a subject of their choice. You can look back at the posts they wrote a couple of months ago to learn about the amazing topics they chose, suffice to say, I was reading drafts on everything from 19th century Decadents to 1930s bathing suits – and enjoying guiding the students as their ideas developed and their writing became ever more fluent and sophisticated. They all worked incredibly hard, were great fun to teach and graduated with excellent grades.
So, please join me in congratulating these brilliant, talented graduates, and wishing them luck for their future, no doubt wonderful careers!
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.
When the heat of June rolls in and spring layers give way to bright, flowing dresses, I cannot help but be reminded of the quintessential summer garment, and perhaps my favorite historical fashion trend, the Edwardian lingerie dress. Its name derived from the undergarment-like materials with which the dress was made: sheer cotton or linen inset with lace, all bleached vivid white, with a white or pastel silk slip underneath. Primarily worn from the early 1900s until 1914, these delicate gowns embodied docile and leisured Edwardian femininity.
Despite its salacious name, the lingerie dress was a staple of a respectable woman’s wardrobe. The 1905 Marion Harland’s Complete Etiquette, for example, suggested that women have a ‘white lingerie dress’ for luncheon or afternoon tea. It could also be worn as a wedding dress or a casual evening gown during the summer. Since it was appropriate attire for multiple occasions, the lingerie dress is commonly identified as a tea gown, an afternoon dress, a summer dress, or (when made with plain weave cotton or linen) a lawn dress. The lingerie dress eschewed the loose, comfortable fit of the late-nineteenth century tea gown, its predecessor, in favor of the fashionable silhouette. An American lingerie dress from the 1908, pictured above, demonstrates the silhouette of the first decade of the twentieth century, the thrust-forward bust and curved back indicative of the s-bend, or swan bill, corset. Later lingerie dresses exhibit the straight line introduced in Poiret’s Directoire revival gowns.
Lingerie dresses were available at many price points, with some simple styles ready-made and more ornate designs offered by top couturiers. Doucet and Redfern, for instance, produced lavishly embellished gowns of hand-made lace and extensive embroidery. Such dresses were suitable for trips to the races and other society functions. White lingerie dresses, at least at first, represented the unhurried, tidy lifestyle of upper class women. Their delicate embellishments necessitated careful cleaning, an especially arduous task for white gowns which had to be washed at extremely high temperatures and repeatedly bleached. As its popularity increased, less elaborate gowns with machine-made lace were produced. These dresses, theoretically, could be machine washed; thus, women of the lower-middle class could wear lingerie dresses similar to those worn by society women without the laborious washing process of more delicate gowns. This proliferation of the lingerie dress across socio-economic boundaries indicates a society-wide aspiration to toward a pure, tranquil femininity of upper class leisure.
The symbolism of the white lingerie dress was later co-opted by British suffragettes as they campaigned for women’s rights. Throughout the nineteenth century the women’s suffrage movement allied closely with dress reform, both aimed at increasing female liberation. Trouser-like garments such as the bifurcated skirt doomed those attempts to notoriety, since the adoption of masculine clothing was viewed as a challenge to patriarchal power. The suffragette uniform of white shirtwaists and tailor-made skirts capitalized on the reputation of the white lingerie dress. As Kimberly Wahl describes, white not only acknowledged accepted fashion, but also, ‘offered itself as a purified and visible marker of difference, conforming to gender binaries of the period, and was thus reassuringly feminine.’ Women’s liberation groups, then, manipulated the white lingerie dress, a symbol of traditional Edwardian femininity, to advance their cause. Though primarily a representation of traditional gender roles, the lingerie dress established sartorial conventions for the suffragettes and helped democratize dress across social boundaries.
Clare Rose, Art Nouveau Fashion (London: V&A Publishing, 2014)
Daniel James Cole and Nancy Deihl, ‘The 1900s,’ in The History of Modern Fashion (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2015), pp. 77-98
Kimberly Wahl, ‘Purity and Parity: The White Dress of the Suffrage Movement in Early Twentieth Century Britain,’ in Jonathan Faiers, Mary Westerman Bulgarella, ed., Colors in Fashion (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), pp. 21-33