How did your academic and professional background lead to your current role at the PMA?
Originally I was interested in the history of late nineteenth-century furniture and I attended the Museum Studies program at the University of Manchester. Everyone in my class seemed to be doing ceramics or furniture, so I thought that if I was going to find a job, I needed to choose another area to focus on. I then wrote my thesis on aesthetic dress. What I liked about the history of dress was that it combined art history, fashion history, social history, and economic history – it synthesised a lot of my interests.
My first job was at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery where I was hired as the Assistant Keeper of Decorative Arts, and I was to be in charge of activating their costume collection which had been in storage for years. My first day on the job I arrived and discovered that there had been a flood in the storage area and the entire collection was laid out in the painting gallery on tables sopping wet. I was completely thrown by that because, even though we had discussions and workshops on conservation at Manchester, I wasn’t prepared for dealing with a real conservation emergency. That sent me to thinking that I really needed to add conservation to my background.
I was there for a few years and then went to the Courtauld to study textile conservation. It was at the time when Stella Mary Newton was still teaching, and the program was split between history of dress and textile conservation. After I completed that program, I had to find a job, and I wrote to probably twenty museums in the United States and heard from two. One was Williamsburg, which was offering a curatorial position and the other was the Brooklyn Museum, which was offering conservation. I thought that since I just spent all this money studying conservation that I should at least try it, so I chose Brooklyn and was there for a few years. I then took a job at the Museum of London where I started out as a textile conservator and then switched over to curatorial.
From the Museum of London, I took a job at a private conservation centre in Chicago, but, probably the first week I was there, I knew I had made a mistake and spent the next couple of years trying to figure out how to extricate myself. I was offered a freelance job at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and organised a small show on French fashion for them. I did this without the person I was working for knowing what I was doing. At the same time I was interviewing for a position at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. So I used to fly down to Texas, via Philadelphia and then back to Chicago. Eventually I was offered the job in Philadelphia, which had been vacant for seven or eight years. It turned out that they had to raise the money, but the Director in Houston kept on putting pressure on them to make a decision. That’s how I ended up in Philadelphia.
What interests you most about working with dress?
I’m interested in all aspects of the object – the history of its manufacture, the wearers, the materials, etc. I like that it can be viewed in many different contexts – fashion history, art history, social history and sociology, technology, and anthropology. It’s a jumping off point for exploring so many other areas.
What current projects are you working on at the museum?
Right now I’m working on a Patrick Kelly exhibition, which will be opening on April 26, and then I have a number of other possible projects which I can’t divulge at the moment, but some are quite exciting.
What is your favourite piece in the collection?
Whatever I acquire becomes my favourite piece! As for things in the past in terms of costume, I still love Schiaparelli’s harlequin coat for the way it’s designed – the progression of the colour. But I find anything can become a favourite once you delve into it and learn about it.
How did your Courtauld degree benefit you in your career?
I received a diploma in conservation from the Courtauld. I think it has made me a well-rounded curator and has given me another perspective. The one thing that conservation did do – and I think other colleagues who have been conservators and then become curators agree with me – is that it really taught me how to look at objects and understand them. I look first; I don’t fit the framework to the object or the history to the object. I try to read the object. That probably was the greatest benefit and that really came from having two great teachers: Karen Finch and Stella Mary Newton. Today, I think there’s an assumption that you get your MA and there’s a direct path – but you may have to segue and move sideways. Always plan ahead and think about your career path and what will distinguish you from other candidates.
Interview transcribed by Jennifer Potter with Joanna Fulginiti (Administrative Assistant, Costumes & Textiles, Philadelphia Museum of Art), March 19, 2014.
Carey Gibbons is a Fourth Year PhD student at the Courtauld Institute of Art, supervised by Professor Caroline Arscott. She was born and grew up in Memphis Tennessee, lived in New York City for ten years, and came to the Courtauld in 2009.
What are you wearing?
A black sweatshirt with a giant shark made out of rhinestones and little orange spikes for the teeth, a black fake leather skirt, black leggings and black lace-up ankle boots.
Where did you find the shark sweater?
I got it from the Forever 21 store in Chicago in January.
What has been its biggest adventure to date?
I’ve only worn it a few times, but I wore it with James (my boyfriend) to the Apple store and we took a bunch of photos on their computer. I guess you could say this shirt brings out my playful side.
Why did you want to look playful today?
It was raining and I was feeling down so I put it on and I felt more upbeat and motivated. Because a shark is a fierce creature it helps me attack my day with ferocity, perseverance and determination. Bam! (pumps the air with her fist)
Is this what you wear to the Courtauld typically?
Yes, it’s pretty typical. I like wearing clothes that incorporate animals in some way. I have a lot of clothes with animal print. I have animal jewellery. I have a shark-tooth necklace which is really important to me and a fox necklace made out of rhinestones that I really like wearing.
Is there a practical aspect to what you’re wearing?
I wear black leggings a lot because they’re really comfortable. My boots are flat… I like to wear flats or low heels so that I’m comfortable.
How does being a PhD student as opposed to a staff member or undergraduate influence how you dress?
I think if I was a staff member or a postdoctoral fellow, then I would make more of an effort to look professional, but for now I’m celebrating the opportunity to wear whatever I want and express myself through my clothes.
What makes you stand out from other Courtauldians?
(Laughs) I seek to combine the sweet and the vicious in my clothes. I would say that other Courtauldians exude a less eclectic vibe and they go for one dominant style, whereas I celebrate my contradictions!
Is there anything about your appearance or dress that marks you out as a Courtauldian?
Courtauldians imbue poise and confidence. Despite going for an eclectic look, I always try and look like I’m composed.
Has your PhD in Victorian illustration inspired your dress sense at all?
Since studying Victorian illustration I’ve become more interested in prints and I’m really into designers like Mary Katranzou and Clover Canyon. I was also captivated by the use of embroidered prints borrowed from imaginary ethnic groups in the Valentino S/S 14 collection. I like experiments with line and pattern to create a mood or evoke a fantasy world.
A phone rings. A woman begins to bathe, tentatively dipping her toe into a tub of warm water, before slowly pulling a stocking up her shapely calf. A man douses his shaving brush in cream before selecting the perfect pair of cufflinks. I’d Be Delighted To, an amateur film made in 1934, portrays a couple preparing themselves for a romantic dinner, every small step of their separate dressing rituals, and the evening itself, shown in close-up detail. This is not, however, a conventional visual narrative- the silent 14-minute film is played out solely through close-up shots of the couple’s hands and feet, as they engage in washing, dressing, drinking and dining, in a technique that shares affinities with the avant-garde cinema of the period and its alternative approach to that of Hollywood. These carefully angled shots of almost anonymous body parts, combined with inanimate objects, build up a powerful overall sequence, isolating specific details in order to form strong thematic associations between them and the viewer and therefore dramatically increasing the significance of their meanings. The direct result of this technique is a prevailing ritualistic mood and a sensual emphasis on clothes as tools for glamour and seduction. The tactile qualities of the clothes’ textures, such as the woman’s fur coat, glittering jewellery and silk dress is consequently illuminated in a manner bordering on the fetishistic, and the visual appeal of the garments becomes inextricably linked to desire and imbued with an erotic energy. The romantic tension between the couple is therefore heightened through the use and depiction of dress, presenting both a sensory experience of everyday activities such as dressing and dining and blurring the boundaries between intimacy and anonymity. The fleeting presence of a maid character, who assists with the preparation and serving of the meal, is enforced through a similar focus on dress. However, this time it is labour rather than luxury that is imposed upon the viewer as the decadently sumptuous elements of the female diner’s garments are sharply juxtaposed against the strictly utilitarian aesthetic of the maid’s plain ensemble. The overall resulting impression of this amateur film technique is an intriguing blend of both detachment and engagement, erotic charge and ambiguity; one that manages to distil its simple narrative with as much poignancy and visual force as any Hollywood sequence.
See ‘I’d Be Delighted To’ (1934) here (courtesy of the East Anglian Film Archive): http://www.eafa.org.uk/catalogue/3436
This commentary is based on a lecture given by Dr. Charles Tepperman, assistant professor of film studies at the University of Calgary entitled ‘“We are all Artists”: Amateur Film, Fashion, and the Art of the Everyday’. The lecture was given at the Courtauld Institute of Art in January 2014 as part of the Friends Lecture series based on the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation MA course ‘Documenting Fashion: Modernity, Film and Image in Europe and America, 1920-1945’.
A woman arches her back, twisting elegantly to the side, as she daintily raises her hands to her head, forming neat, careful, mirrored triangles. Her form is made up of frantic, expressive strokes of black charcoal, singed onto the buff paper with latent energy. This overspills into colour: zingy bursts of sunburnt orange, and rich, luscious green echo her movements. As do further sweeps of charcoal surrounding her figure: the ghost of a previous outline, abandoned by the artist, whose continued presence lends a sense of animation. In the foreground, an indistinguishable flurry takes place – the back of a leg, or the swish of a skirt – and the woman in question seemingly turns towards it, as another part within a precisely synchronised whole. Yet while the piece is by Edgar Degas, notorious for his effervescent depictions of the changing life of the ballet, this window reveals the careful orchestration that also took place within everyday life: in this case, as contained within a milliner’s shop. Amidst the movement of Degas’s piece, rest and relief lies in the bottom right-hand corner, where graceful folds of cloth lie sculpturally. They are seemingly set apart from the rest of the composition, reverently bathed in light, which highlights their soft luminosity. This focus on dress connected to a shift that was concurrently occurring: fashion was beginning to gain the momentum that would lead it to where it is today. The world’s first department stores had only recently been set up, in Paris, and began to offer, for the first time, garments that could be bought off the shelf, with little to no need for alteration. This set in motion the path to mass-produced clothing and the fast fashion available today, and such changes captured the attention of contemporary artists and intellectuals. They corresponded in particular with the Impressionist penchant for the pursuit of the new, the capturing of the contemporary. Édouard Manet once declared: ‘the latest fashion is absolutely necessary for a painter. It is what matters most!’ Degas was no exception, and the careful, loving attention he paid to the materiality of dress, in what is by far the most fully worked section of the study, advocated fashion, its importance, and nodded towards its serious social implications, during the 1880s and today alike. A quiet moment of appreciation towards female finery, within a rushing whirlwind towards modernity as we know it.
Dress history students in London are spoiled for choice when it comes to exhibitions, with numerous institutions and galleries catering to fashion-related interests. The Fashion and Textile Museum is one such organisation. Their current exhibition, Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol (21 January-17 May, 2014), showcases textiles and clothing produced by key figures of twentieth century art and design. Focusing on Britain and the United States, it explores the relationship between the aura of the artist and the ubiquity of mass-manufactured objects and the way in which artist textiles disrupt the binary of high art and popular culture.
Looking at artist signatures featured on a number of exhibited textiles, it is difficult not to think of Walter Benjamin’s concept of the auratic presence of unique works of art. This is especially relevant to the many scarves featured in the exhibition. Mounted like canvases, they invite the visitor to study them as they would paintings. Dali’s designs for Wesley Simpson Custom Fabrics Inc. encourage this mode of viewing, transforming the flat fabric surface into a dream-like three dimensional plane. His headscarf ‘Classical Armour’ (c. 1946-7) depicts a derelict urn and suits of armour whose contorted shadows stretch across a nondescript landscape. Cracks along the illustration create the illusion that the scarf was made of a heavier substance than the silk it was printed on. With its many recognisable Dali tropes – drooping forms, melancholy landscapes, sardonic humour – the scarf seems to blur the boundary between art and design, transforming the wearer’s body into a mobile site of display. Furthermore, by drawing attention to the artist’s signature, in this case shown on the lower right-hand side and as a broken coin in the foreground, viewers are encouraged to forget that they are studying a mass-produced object.
Such examples displayed in the exhibition indicate that collaborations between artists and fabric manufacturers proved a lucrative endeavour, targeting audiences that were keen to gain cultural capital by acquiring textiles that featured well-known modernist designs. Instead of destroying the cult status of artworks then, such printed fabrics reinforced the aura of the artist genius and played an important role in familiarising a wide audience with the modernist canon. Although these objects may be viewed with academic suspicion due to their commercial appeal, the exhibition aims to dispel such concerns by focusing on how artist textiles allowed people to engage with modern art in their everyday lives. Wall texts, advertisements and magazine excerpts convincingly suggest that these fabrics served as an interface between high art and popular culture. At the same time, it would have been beneficial to learn more about how the displayed objects were worn and perceived by an enthusiastic public.
Although the exhibition predominantly focuses on the collaboration between artists and textile manufacturers, examples from the work of designers, such as Adrian and Claire McCardell add an exciting variety to its scope for audiences interested in fashion history. Commissioned by Fuller Fabrics to produce garments from their ‘Modern Masters’ range, McCardell used Picasso’s ‘Fish’ print (1955) to create a dress that featured some of her signature trademarks, which included the use of natural fabrics – in this case cotton – and details that accentuated the wearer’s body, such as belts and gathered pleats. Fuller Fabrics’ decision to hire McCardell indicates that some ready-to-wear designers were becoming increasingly influential in America during this period. Viewed within the context of the exhibition then, this dress points to the crucial role that mass-produced fashion played in twentieth-century material and visual culture by disseminating ideas and ideals of modernity.
On 7 February, the athletes of the 88 nations competing in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia paraded into Fisht Olympic Stadium. As an American, I felt unexpectedly proud as I watched Team USA, led by flag bearer Todd Lodwick, march into the stadium in their red, white, and blue patchwork uniforms, designed and made in America by heritage brand Ralph Lauren. In this singular event, prior to the start of the actual competitions, the patriotically clad bodies of the American Olympic athletes united ideas of sport and fashion and became a symbol of national identity.
Dress historian Christopher Breward has argued that many connections exist between the spectacle of sporting and sartorial performance, and they became especially apparent on the bodies of America’s Olympians during the Parade of Nations. Through these bodies, physically fit and dressed to match the familiar colours of the American flag, Team USA presented itself as a national symbol that embodied athletic strength and foreshadowed the country’s victory in the Games. This display of fashion and athletic prowess was partially directed towards their international peers and competitors. However, Olympians also aimed to inspire feelings of pride and admiration from eager American fans across the globe. These shared emotions of, what Breward described as ‘anticipation and excitement’ are characteristic of both fashion and sport, and, when presented together in this event, evoked nationalist sentiment among American viewers.
The athletes’ patchwork roll-neck cardigans, emblazoned with the stars and stripes, the Olympic rings, and the iconic Polo Ralph Lauren logo, seemed both luxurious and comfortable, classic and modern. This sportswear aesthetic, according to Rebecca Arnold, is an ‘identifiably American form of dressing.’ Known for his fashionable yet active designs, Ralph Lauren has become an icon of America’s sportswear heritage, his clothing and logo were thus fitting choices for the Olympic Opening Ceremony uniforms. Celebrating modernity, glamour, and the ‘heroic, rationalized body,’ Team USA successfully combined sport and fashion to become a symbol of American national identity.
Arnold, R. (2009) The American Look: Fashion, Sportswear, and the Image of Women in 1930s and 1940s New York, New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd.
Breward, C. (2008) ‘Pure Gesture: Reflections on the Histories of Sport and Fashion’, in Breward, C. (ed.) Fashion v Sport, London: V&A Publishing.
‘The Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore’ exhibition at Somerset House caused a sensation. Victoria Sadler from the Huffington Post admired the construction of the show and celebrated the way Isabella ‘wore clothes’. Sadler recalled a feeling of optimism and commended the exhibition for its celebration of fashion as something that is ‘brave, emotive and innovative’. I first met one of its curators, Shonagh Marshall, a few years ago, in a funny little flat in East London, quite a world away from this meeting, in the foyer of Somerset House, at the entrance to ‘Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!’
The exhibition began with glass cabinets filled with personal albums and memorabilia, showing where Isabella Blow had grown up. A small video was shown of Blow leafing through a family album. There were photographs of her striking wedding day outfit and the outfit she had worn to Andy Warhol’s funeral. Immediately, there was a sense that her private life was inextricably linked to her public life, and her fashion sense courted this attention whilst retaining an intensely personal declaration of her own character.
Isabella Blow’s style and the remaining material clothes bear the imprints of a well-lived life. Beginning with family, the exhibition moved onto the definitive collaborative friendships that Isabella made throughout her career.
As we moved through the exhibition, Shonagh pointed out details that I had missed the first time around; a lock of hair that had been sewn into the back of an Alexander McQueen dress provided evidence of Blow and Mc Queen’s shared interest in martyrdom and relics. Blow had deeply loved Joan of Arc and the inspiration behind this particular Mc Queen collection was Jack the Ripper. The worn trail of a dress in the second room, a ‘nightmare’ for dress restorers to cope with, was a fascinating garment that managed to stay in the show. The stains and the tears linked to some of the theory that we have been reading on the Courtauld History of Dress MA, such as Iris Marion’s essay ‘Women Recovering Our Clothes’ (2005) and Lisa Cohen’s exploration of ‘the seam’ in her essay ‘Frock Consciousness’ (1999). Through its wear and imperfections, the dress spoke to the senses and contributed, along with the fragmented mannequins designed by Shona Heath, to the feel of a living garment.
Shonagh’s innate and encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history, which she shared in a lively and memorable manner, reminded me of our tutor, Dr Rebecca Arnold. Listening to Shonagh’s modesty about the most innovative parts of the exhibition was particularly inspiring. She created a sense in which it was, as if by luck, that the original footage of the various fashion shows from the Royal College of Art, seen in the second room, had been displayed. This was an ingenious part of the exhibition that allowed the viewer to feel the pulse of fashion at the time when Isabella was working. In many ways, Shonagh’s innovative approach to fashion curation created parallels between Shonagh and Isabella, something crucial, perhaps, for a curator to feel whilst making a show in someone else’s honour. Isabella’s own drive to bring art school graduates into contact with established institutions was matched by the introduction of art school film footage into the vicinity of the established institution of Somerset House and more broadly, the museum itself. Blow took Hussein Chayalan’s collection, featured in the show, in black bin bags to the boutique Browns on South Molton Street, insisting that they display his work. The exhibition itself was polished and sophisticated, both conceptually and literally. But what struck me most was that it stemmed from working directly with Isabella’s clothes, archiving them for another formidable character, Daphne Guiness. It was through this level of personal contact and interest that the idea for the exhibition had emerged. Indeed, Shonagh described archiving Isabella’s clothes from black bin bags, proof that the makeshift mentality of Isabella still lives on. In the fourth part of the exhibition, Julia (also on the Courtauld History of Dress MA) noted three of the same shoe, which suggested evidence of a lost shoe. Aware of our own outfits, we admired Shonagh Marshall’s heels, to which she responded that dealing with such a fashionable subject, she could hear Isabella asking her, ‘why are you not in heels today?’
As we moved through to Phillip Treacey’s impressive hat display, Shonagh explained how helpful Treacey had been, both in terms of his designs and the time he had spent hanging them. The seamless links between the private and professional were particularly evident in the bright pink phone and letters, signed by Isabella with a kiss. The following room was a moving celebration of Isabella’s clothes. The mannequins were in positions modeled on Blow’s gait and created a moving impression of the various facets of her personality. The faces were painted with differing make up palettes and some were displayed behind plastic visors to insist they were not reconstructions of Blow per se, but designed to give an effect. The outfits had been studied in correlation to press photographs to ensure accuracy.
As we moved back into the main room to admire the parachute cloak and line of beautiful dresses, Shonagh’s heel became caught in a wooden plank and she nearly went flying. In light of Blow’s insistence on the self-expressive qualities of fashion, often at the cost of function, it was a brilliant homage to Isabella herself, as we were standing just meters away from her three shoes, one probably lost to a similar fate.
Finally, Shonagh pointed out a grey Julian McDonald dress that was very rare because of its colour, cut and the year that it was made. It brought the dress to life and this is something I have definitely learnt through studying with Rebecca. Both Shonagh and Rebecca seem to make the underappreciated visible once again.
Following this fascinating tour, I caught up with Shonagh to ask her a few questions:
How does this project link to some of the other projects you have been involved with?
Prior to my position at Somerset House I archived the Isabella Blow Collection for The Honourable Daphne Guinness after she purchased the collection by private sale from Christies. After such a close bond with the objects in the collection it was an inspired opportunity to be able to bring the clothing to life in exhibition format. The solitary, private nature of archival work is so different to the curatorial role which is a public presentation of the clothing, with a constructed, informed narrative. Due to my previous role and my knowledge of the collection I was invited to co-curate the exhibition, with Alistair O’Neill as Curator, this was a wonderful collaboration in that Alistair has so much experience and the most fantastic constructions of themes and narrative whereas my focus within the exhibition was on the objects and where each fitted into the overarching exhibition journey.
The curatorial moments that were particularly inspired felt like the Royal College of Art footage and the editorial magazine pages from the archives. Do you feel like archives played a particularly important role in this exhibition?
On a personal note I do because of my relationship with the Isabella Blow Collection archive. The archive generally is becoming more visible, with many fashion houses and brands realising the importance in retaining their heritage. However it wasn’t a conscious decision throughout the exhibition to use loans from archives they were merely the places where this footage was held. Perhaps the current climate makes visitors more aware to consider where this pieces is stored and held, taking more interest in the archive that has loaned the object. However on a much more practical note, permanent museum collections such as the V&A or the Museum of London require around a year or more notice on loan requests– the total time to prepare the exhibition was just under a year (from research time and build).
You studied Fashion History and Theory with Dr Rebecca Arnold at Central Saint Martins. In what ways did that course shape your approach to your working practice now?
I went to study Fashion History and Theory at Central Saint Martins with Rebecca at the age of 18. Upon starting I had absolutely no knowledge of fashion history and after three years left with a love for academic approach to fashion. This as a grounding gave me such a lot, Rebecca has such passion for the subject this lead to a grounding in how to use research methodologies to collate primary research to discuss fashion in an academic voice. It was really exciting to have stumbled upon a course at 18 which has shaped my career so significantly, however the peers I met during that time remain great friends and they also shape working practice through discussion and sharing of ideas.
Do you think having an academic understanding of fashion benefits your working practice today?
Absolutely and I am very mindful to retain the rigour of an academic approach to curatorial practice. I feel coming from a background in BA Fashion History and Theory has given me the tools to approach subjects in this way and my studying MA Fashion Curation the theories surrounding curatorial practice. Exhibitions can be a really wonderful mix of academic and visual approaches.
And after such a fantastic exhibition, what are your plans for the future?
I am a curator at Somerset House so will continue to work on projects here. I however would like to possibly curate exhibitions of a smaller nature, perhaps a set of installations throughout the buildings.
Beatrice Behlen is Senior Curator of Fashion & Decorative Arts at the Museum of London. She completed the MA History of Dress at the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1991.
When did you know you wanted to do something with fashion?
From when I was little, I was always interested in clothes. I can still remember the things I wore when I was three years old. At first, I wanted to become a fashion journalist because the idea of it sounded very glamorous; I thought I would fly everywhere and see fashion shows. At the time, you couldn’t study fashion journalism in Germany, so I was very lucky to get into a school for fashion design in Bremen without really having a portfolio.
Did the school make you want to become a fashion designer?
Not really, I wasn’t very good as a fashion designer and it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. It was a very proper fashion design course and we learned how to make drawings and patterns. At one point, I remember we went to see the fashion shows in Paris. This was of course great, but I hated it at the same time. I immediately felt that this was not my world and that it was not where I wanted to be either. Everything in fashion happens too quickly, I couldn’t deal with it. What I really enjoyed most about the course were the classes on fashion history.
Can you tell me about your fashion designs? What were they like?
I found the body something difficult to deal with because it is round and everyone is different. I think I should probably have done graphic design because it is more orderly and all about straight lines. I like order. For my last collection, I designed a group of really big top hats inspired by the Arnolfini Portrait and the drawings for Alice in Wonderland. This collection was about the meaning and significance of hats and it was a mix between the real and surreal.
Who was your favorite designer?
I always really liked Jean Paul Gaultier.
After studying fashion design you moved to London to study the History of Dress at the Courtauld. What was it like back then?
I had to go to the Courtauld for an interview first. It was not easy and very expensive to go all the way to London for just one day. Luckily, I had the entire afternoon free and spent ages just walking around at the V&A. After I was accepted, I just couldn’t get my head around the fact that there were only seven of us on the course because in Germany there had always been so many of us. The first year of the course was a whole run through of fashion history starting from the Romans and Greeks to now. I found that first year very tough because I hadn’t done an academic course before. I can still remember the first presentation I had to give… I couldn’t even finish it. The second year, my special subject was the history of dress for the period 1600-1640, mainly for England, France and Holland.
What did you write your dissertation on?
I wrote about several fashion magazines dating from the period around 1800. I was working on it at the British Library all the time, even on Saturdays…
Did you know right after graduation that you wanted to become a fashion curator?
No, I thought I wanted to be an academic. I am not sure why that was exactly. I didn’t think being a curator was something for me because curators were usually a particular kind of woman that was nothing like me. This perception changed when I met Valerie Mendes at the V&A; she was a curator and someone I could really relate to. I did a three-month internship at the V&A. That was such a lucky experience!
Before coming to the Museum of London in 2007, you worked as a curatorial assistant at the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Kensington Palace. You also taught fashion and design students at several art colleges and you worked at the contemporary art gallery ‘Annely Juda Fine Art’. What did you take away with you from these various experiences?
At Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Kensington Palace I catalogued their collection and learnt how much work it is to care for clothes in a museum. This also gave me the insight that I don’t mind dealing with all of that. By teaching, I realised how much I could learn myself just from talking to people and through discussion. I liked the idea that I could make a difference by talking to the students about their work. At the contemporary art gallery, on the other hand, I got to know how the commercial world works: you have to do what the client wants. I am quite shy but at these big art fairs I had to learn how to approach people. Unfortunately, I never enjoyed selling that much. I just didn’t get a kick out of it.
Today, you are Senior Curator of Fashion & Decorative Arts at the Museum of London. What makes this place so special for you?
I have been at the Museum of London since late 2007, which is the longest I have ever been anywhere. It was fun working at Kensington Palace but the subject matter was just quite narrow as we kept talking about the Royal family and the court. I was really pleased when a job came up here because the Museum of London also has ‘everyday dress’ in its collection.
What would be your ultimate next exhibition project?
Oh dear, that’s a difficult one. I am almost moving a little bit away from purely dress exhibitions. For a long time, I wanted to do something about ‘Love’. I would like to work around this theme because we have a lot of objects in the collection that connect to ‘Love’ in one way or another, and not just clothes. Besides that, I think that an exhibition on ‘things you wear at night’ would be great fun.
What have been your main research interests over the years?
I am interested in subcultures and youth cultures. I am most interested in the interwar period. I love the personal stories behind objects and I find myself wondering more and more how I can bring these out in a museum environment. You could easily write about them, or show them in a film, but in an exhibition this is really hard. That’s something I still need to crack.
Faces and feet are out of focus or cropped out of the frame, whereas breasts and bottoms are emphasised and given a literal and psychological sexual charge that both objectifies and abstracts bodies of all shapes, shades and sizes. Such deliberate technical shortcomings, combined with the gaudy colours of cheap Kodak Instamatic film, inject a gritty realism into these confessional photographs that draw the viewer in with a highly developed aesthetic sensibility. They have the appearance of spontaneous observation and form part of a project entitled Meninas do Brasil [Girls of Brazil], which wasstarted by the Rio de Janeiro-based Brazilian documentary and fashion photographer Mari Stockler in 1996.
Stockler was inspired by a song, written by the Brazilian composer and singer Dorival Caymmi, ‘Um Vestido de Bolero’ [A Bolero Dress], which she heard whilst on holiday in Salvador da Bahia. It describes an awkward young woman who dresses in an eclectic ensemble combining a burgundy jacket with a green, blue and white skirt. Whilst shooting a short film in the poorer suburbs of Rio de Janeiro a few months later, Stockler was reminded of Caymmi’s song when she witnessed an interesting fashion phenomenon unfold before her eyes: ‘I realised that something very powerful was happening. It was a kind of “haute couture” made by anonymous designers. The interesting thing is that these anonymous designers were very influenced by Azzedine Alaia. They used to buy old fashion magazines from the 1980s. This was before Jennifer Lopez or Salma Hayek became successful in Hollywood for their Latin American sexiness’. Alaia’s designs, as customised and reinterpreted, resulted in spandex trousers, tops, shorts and body suits in a variety of colours, shapes, structures and sizes with different patterns, holes, transparencies and details. Stockler enthused: ‘The girls were wearing them day and night. All kinds of bodies with a funky second skin’.
She became captivated and began to photograph girls in the streets, discos, samba halls and shopping malls throughout Rio, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Belem do Para and Salvador. Dancing, chatting and laughing with them, she understood her role as a recorder of their activities, but not a choreographer of their actions: ‘None of them saw me as a “professional photographer” and this was a big condition for the image. I was with them with no critical distance.’ The tilted camera angle and blur seen in the resulting images shows that Stockler worked unobtrusively. She is never represented in the photographs, but her presence is felt in the varied ways that the subjects react to her and her camera. Stockler developed a technique that she had been taught by the Brazilian artist Regina Case, whom she describes as ‘the master of intimacy’, to get ‘very very close to them in seconds’. When asked if she posed her subjects in a certain way, Stockler recalled a scenario that produced one of her favourite images in Meninas do Brasil: ‘I never asked them to pose for the camera. There were cases of provocation as in the example of a group of three women. When I arrived they started to make fun of me. Meanwhile, I was photographing them. One asked me what kind of dress I was wearing (my clothes were different from theirs) and if I was wearing panties. I remember this as that I was wearing my husband’s underwear (I don’t know why!) and I decided to show them this. I lifted up my dress and they laughed a lot. I considered that one of my best shots’.
Concentric diagonal lines lead the viewer’s eye to a central triangle and button of a cotton dress. Its simple construction is composed of eight panels of fabric inventively joined on the bias to construct a dynamic motif of vertical lines. Two circular pockets with horizontal lines applied to the skirt and a vertical column of buttons that opens the garment clash with this diagonal current, and enliventhe play of colour and line. Like the faux pocket at the breast, the dress teases, tricks and amuses. Although its creator, French designer Emmanuelle Khanh (b. 1937), employed whimsical and trompe l’œil details throughout her career, there was an increased interest in geometry and distortion in mid-1960s pattern design.
The dress was part of the Spring/Summer 1966 collection produced for the label I.D., created three years earlier. Its artistic director, styliste Maïmé Arnodin (1916-2003), mediated between Khanh and a network of other professionals—manufacturers, textile producers, retailers, graphic designers, journalists and photographers—to see the garment to completion. A 1966 article in Le Monde discussed stylistes, whose role, which was ‘growing nonstop as fashion industrialises,’ was to counsel their manufacturer clients on future styles and colours to render last year’s fashion obsolete. The article even surmised that stylistes premeditated the trend for Op Art, which, ‘presented with a great splash in magazines before going on sale, was almost outmoded before it was woven.’
Although limited by industrial constraints, Khanh looked outward to a culture saturated by new graphic trends. In 1965 and 1966 Op Art was a constant feature in the everyday visual landscape of France and abroad. The play of lines on her dress recalls the concentric squares in Frank Stella’s Line Up (1962). This painting was reproduced in Michel Ragon’s article in the July 1965 issue of French Vogue entitled Op Art? Sa Place est dans la rue. Stella’s painting was part of the The Responsive Eye exhibition held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1965, which popularised the movement and inspired, as Khanh recently admitted, her 1966 collection. She added that the dresses’ ‘clashing lines…broke the rhythm,’ which ‘made the silhouette vibrate.’ Cyril Barrett similarly wrote of Op painting that what ‘first confronts us is a stable and often rather monotonous repetition of lines, squares or dots. But as we continue to look at the simple structure it begins to dissolve before our eyes. The dots seem to flicker and move; the lines undulate; the surface heaves and billows.’ The moving body would have accentuated these effects. Ragon’s title alluded to the fact that this movement, as other critics argued, belonged out of the museum and ‘in the street.’ Likewise, Barrett described it as ‘an artform which was what every good dress or advertisement should be—eye-catching.’
Barrett, C. (1971) An Introduction to Optical Art, London: Studio Vista.
Khanh, E. (n.d.) unpublished manuscript.
Mont-Servan, N. (1966) ‘Le role des stylistes’, Le Monde, 2 June.