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
It’s December, the ice rink is up and running in the Somerset House courtyard, and we couldn’t be more excited for Christmas and, more importantly, winter fashion! To get in the mood, we have been looking through the Documenting Fashion archives and reminiscing about the wintery display that Dr Rebecca Arnold, PhD student Alexis Romano and MA History of Dress alumnus Fruszina Befeki curated as part of last year’s Winter Mode exhibition in Somerset House. Their display, Winter Mode, showcased a group of fashion journals from the Courtauld’s collection, giving the reader tips for how look chic in the snow! Read on for a recap of their experiences!
Exhibition Update: Goodbye Summer, Hello Winter! Planning ‘Winter Mode’ by Alexis Romano
As they design fashion collections, with their clear link to upcoming seasons, designers must continually have the impression of being projected into the future. Fashion’s futurity affects shoppers too, who imagine their bodies in clothing that relates to seasonal elements. Co-curating the display Winter Mode (with Dr Rebecca Arnold and Fruzsina Befeki), one of the exhibitions that constitute Fashioning Winter at Somerset House, has resulted in a similar detachment between present and future for me. Summer and now autumn has been winter focused, as our display explores wintry fashion illustrations from the 1910s and 1920s, and specifically, how illustrators connected the subject to her environment, and represented at once the style, modernity, warmth and comfort of winter dress.
And as a rather warm autumn lingers, installation has already begun! While we, along with head curator Shonagh Marshall and dress historians such as Amy de la Haye, install our individual displays, technicians work to erect the ice skating rink that has inhabited the courtyard of Somerset House for fifteen years each winter. Both rink and exhibition open to the public on 11th November.
Although our installation is only two days away, there is still much to do. Our display showcases the fashion journals Gazette du Bon Ton, Femina and Journal des dames et des modes, and we’ve chosen the individual fashion plates as they relate to our three themes: The Elements, Fashion and Sport. We decided on the content months ago, but we must constantly adapt and adjust the display in view of issues that arise, relating to conservation or to display case constraints for example. And as display objects change so must our overall aesthetic. In the above photograph taken several weeks ago Fruzsina works on one of our mock exhibits! We are especially thankful to Antony Hopkins, Kilfinan Librarian, Head of Book, Witt and Conway Libraries at the Courtauld Institute, and Kate Edmondson, Paper Conservator at the Courtauld Gallery, for their support and guidance during this process.
Each journal on display will be identified by a caption that recalls an antique price tag, which we hope will carry viewers to a figurative shopping space, embellished by layers of history. And although they won’t be able to handle the journals on display, we’ve created a booklet for them to touch and peruse, with the help of the exhibition designer Amy Preston. It is our abstract interpretation of a historic fashion journal, and includes a fashion plate, editor’s letter, and other surprises. Will this intimate interaction heighten readers’ bodily sense of setting, and plunge them into winter? And those who attend some of the exhibitions’ associated events, such as our December workshop, will obtain their very own copy!
4 November, 2014
Installing ‘Winter Mode’ at Somerset House by Fruszi Befeki
I must admit, rather unprofessionally perhaps, that I was like a child on Christmas day during yesterday morning’s installation of Winter Mode, a display that I am curating with Dr Rebecca Arnold and Alexis Romano for Fashioning Winter at Somerset House. We had decided on our object list, approved labels, wrote condition reports and even devised a ‘dress rehearsal’ (see Alexis’s blog post from 4th November) well in advance of installation, but we had never seen all of these components come together.
We started our day by going over the contents of our to-do list, which we proceeded to tick off one by one. The two book cradles that Kate Edmondson, The Courtauld’s paper conservator, kindly made for us were ready. They were waiting for us at the studio, along with the two books they were designed to hold. We headed back to Rebecca’s office where we very carefully laid out all of the objects, to go over our sequence and arrangement one last time. This gave us the opportunity to make sure that we had the right viewing dynamic, with the different illustrations’ subjects connecting with one another through the direction of their gaze and body language. All of the fashionable ladies featured in the display are engaged in the act of looking, either at themselves, at art objects or at a winter scene, as if illustrators sought to remind their viewers of their own tendencies. We aimed to highlight this and to animate the display through their interaction.
At two o’clock we headed to the East Wing of Somerset House with boxes in tow, to find the empty vitrine waiting to be filled. Once Shonagh Marshall and Susan Thompson (head curator of Fashioning Winter and Somerset House exhibitions organiser, respectively) had arrived, we began by placing the textile panel, bound in a lovely Christopher Farr fabric, in the display case. Conservator Frances Halahan then carefully cleaned the surface so that no dust or microscopic insects would endanger the magazines once under glass. We then proceeded to arrange objects according to our well rehearsed plan and matched them up with their respective condition report so that Frances could verify our details’ accuracy.
Once the object labels arrived we reached the penultimate stage of installation; all that remained to do was meticulously review every arrangement before placing the glass over the display. We commissioned captions to look like vintage price tags in order to emphasise that, for many viewers, looking at these illustrations was like window-shopping. They are labelled according to one of three themes: Fashion, Sport, Battling the Elements. These refer not only to the scenes depicted, but also to the sense that each illustrator tried to convey to viewers: the thrill of ice-skating or the comfort of a warm coat on a frosty winter afternoon, for example.
With everything in position and checked, technicians expertly lifted and placed the glass over the case. As Shonagh pointed out, there is something quite satisfying about this final stage of installation. The glass seals and protects the objects, which will stay in place until the exhibition closes. Visitors are now welcome to move around, lean in close, and inspect the display. We hope you will enjoy Winter Mode!
We would like to thank the staff at Somerset House and at the Courtauld Institute of Art for their generous help on the day and leading up to the exhibition.
7 November 2014
A Walk Through ‘Fashioning Winter’ by Fruszi Befeki
Although we have been focusing on our own displays for Fashioning Winter in order to give you some behind the scenes access, now that the exhibition is up and running it is time to introduce you to the fascinating exhibits that make up the rest of the project. As with most shows, it really is best if you go see it in person, but for those who cannot make it, here are a few photographic guides to Somerset House’s winter fashion history treasure hunt.
Caroline Evans’s Skating on Film is directly next to our installation in Somerset House’s East Wing. The display focuses on footage of people skating in the early 20th century, and features clips from the Netherland’s Eye Filmmuseum.
These clips provide a parallel to Skate in Somerset House’s courtyard and encourage viewers to compare their own wardrobes and motions with sets of gestures from the past.
Amy de la Haye used her own collection of postcards by the illustrator Xavier Sager, and these depictions of fashionable women ice-skating and rollerblading are also in keeping with the theme of winter sports. Sager’s works are a combination of beautiful workmanship and a healthy dose of humour and when seen together, these illustrations reveal a connection between modernity, fashion and motion.
Sophia Hedman and Serge Martinov have created a highly conceptual display that focuses on the changing meanings of the colour white in Western fashion history. Exhibits are suspended in the Stamp stairwell, allowing viewers to walk around the objects displayed and admire them at a remarkably close range.
Ben Whyman’s Winter in Wartime is a timely exhibit that will resonate with audiences on the 100th anniversary year of the outbreak of the First World War. The display consists of contemporary illustrated newspaper cuttings, which demonstrate what members of the British Armed forces wore to keep warm at the Front.
If you head to the Great Arch Hall you will find Tory Turk’s and Beatrice Behlen’s respective exhibits facing each other, as if in conversation. Turk has created a “capsule archive” of skiing culture that includes gems such as a Burberry ladies’ ski suit c. 1927. The display maps the evolution of skiwear through an exciting assortment of objects.
While Tory Turk’s exhibit revolves around global skiing culture, Beatrice Behlen has focused on the vogue for skating in interwar London. The exhibition’s focal point, a pair of skates from the 1930s, is given a historical frame with the help of newspaper clippings and photographs. A map that shows viewers where one could find ice-rinks during this period illustrates just how popular the sport was at the time.
The Nelson Stair is now home to Alistair O’Neill’s display of photographer Angus McBean’s imaginative Christmas cards. Humourous, surreal, yet sensitive, these greeting cards, which span the period 1949 to 1985, illustrate a lifetime of creative experimentation.
Head curator Shonagh Marshall examines how the world of fairy tales inspire designers for the autumn/winter shows with the help of evocative literary excerpts and wonderful illustrations by Stephen Doherty. The three projections, set up in alcoves, transform Seamen’s Hall into a living storybook of fashion.
“All photographs are accurate, none of them is the truth.”
– Richard Avedon
In our very first MA class the inevitable conversation about fashion, its imagery and manipulation of the real body turned to Photoshop. Scourge of contemporary fashion media that it is, a quick trawl through the history of fashion photography will tell you that it is not a new phenomenon. While the technology may not be the same, fashion photographers have been manipulating their images since the earliest years of the genre.
Richard Avedon was an American photographer with a prolific career in fashion. He held positions as lead photographer at Harpers Bazaar and Vogue, shot campaigns for Dior, Versace, Revlon and Calvin Klein among many others and is responsible for some of the most iconic fashion images of the 20th century. He worked relentlessly and consistently from the mid 1940’s until his death in 2004.
Avedon was keenly aware that fashion photography had presumptions toward the ideal. Clothes and models starred, and the image should inspire, appeal and oftentimes—sell. The medium of photography allowed for both a ‘realistic’ and highly adjustable way of making images.
“The minute you pick up the camera you begin to lie—or to tell your own truth. You make subjective judgements every step of the way—in how you light the subject, in choosing the moment of exposure, in cropping the print. It’s just a matter of how far you choose to go.” Avedon
Avedon worked with ‘retoucher’ Bob Bishop for over forty years, manually adjusting photo-negatives. Lengthening necks and legs, making eyes larger and even swapping heads and torsos from different images to create an idealized picture, half a century before Photoshop.
As we rage against photo-manipulation in today’s print media, a moment of reflection on its rootedness in the world of fashion photography may yield new perspectives. Would understanding the subjective role of the photographer make us less desperate to believe the final image is the ‘truth’? Or perhaps it is the influence of celebrity in fashion media, with tightly controlled images and a desire to appear perfectly ‘real’. How many today would surrender their image to the photographer as Audrey Hepburn did in 1967? If we continue to view fashion photography through Avedon’s lens of aspiration and fantasy do we really want to restrict his tools? Perhaps understanding the artifice would simply ruin the magic.
Avedon, Richard. In the American West, 1979-1984 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985), foreword. Print.
Avedon, Richard, Carol Squiers, and Vince Aletti. Avedon Fashion. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 2009. Print.
Fineman, Mia. “Pictures in Print.” Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. 157. Print.
I met with Eugénie Shinkle, Reader in Photography in the School of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster in London, to ask her about her current research on fashion photography, focusing on what she has coined, ‘the feminine awkward.’
How would you define your concept of the ‘the feminine awkward’?
It’s a way of thinking through changing representations of the female body and femininity as these are linked to shifts and developments in the creation and sharing of images.
Does it relate to specific fashion imagery?
Yes, certainly. It relates to contemporary fashion imagery, work of roughly the last ten years where you’ll see a shift from images that specifically try to deal with grace and beauty, to images that try to deal with discomfort, awkward angles, a fragmentation of the body, what you might call gracelessness. It is different from the sort of alternative photography that was going on in the 1990s: Corinne Day’s images for example, images of real people in sometimes quite down-market surroundings. That was about a certain type of lifestyle. The newer work that I am thinking about is very much focused on individual bodies. So I am thinking of Synchrodogs, Hart+Leshkina, Ren Hang to a certain extent. And certainly someone like Viviane Sassen.
How do these images affect the relationship between the viewer’s body and the model’s body?
This is where it’s really interesting to start looking at models from the point of view of neuroscience, in which the basic idea is that what we experience visually is not just about vision, but that vision has various tactile stimuli incorporated into it. It’s about something called ‘sensory crossover’ and the fact that none of our sensory inputs are experienced in isolation. The one area that interests me a lot is ‘mirror neuron theory,’ which is the idea that when you look at an image of pain, the same neurons in your brain are firing as if you were actually experiencing pain. It’s the foundation of human empathetic response.
Sensory crossover is a fact of all image perception, but it’s particularly pronounced in fashion imagery, which incorporates sensations of touch, movement, and pose. Images that are ‘awkward’ are those that grab you, that give rise to a certain visceral response quite quickly. It’s a different way of catching and holding a viewer’s attention than, say, ‘shocking’ imagery.
Can they be seen as reaction to the idealized beauty of traditional fashion photography?
I don’t like to see them simply as a reaction to conventional fashion photography because a lot of it has to do with technology as well. It has to do with the speed at which images of the body are disseminated, the rapidity with which they are received, the relationship that we have with images of our own bodies and other bodies. Part of this idea of awkwardness is not just a rejection of beauty it is an acknowledgement of the relationship between bodies, observers and images. That relationship is changing quite profoundly. I certainly see it as something that belongs to more than the limited contexts of fashion.
How do they affect notions of femininity? In Viviane Sassen’s work for example, there is something very liberating in the fact that the bodies do not bear the conventional attributes of femininity; the body is made into a prop and becomes part of a broader formal experimentation.
There is a kind of subversion of feminine identity through purposeful awkwardness, through the making of the body into featureless blobs. I agree with the idea that you can look at them as liberating because all the signifiers of femininity that fashion photography has traditionally exaggerated and made the essence of the feminine are made into something else in quite a humorous way. You can also see how this could be problematic, however. Erasing it, making it invisible is not necessarily a constructive way of challenging notions of femininity.
One of the many delights – and distractions – of research is the things you read along the way to your real goal. While my focus is on Beaton’s wartime photography, for a forthcoming paper at the Museum of London, delving into his diaries and memoirs reveals far wider dress gems. Since these probably won’t make the final edit, I thought I’d share some of my favourite insights with you here – skimmed from the pages of his 1940s memoirs, and, in these examples, from his time spent in post-occupation Paris between 1944 and 1945.
No. 1 – Parisian style during the war was about resistance – to German torment, restrictions and morality, and to imposed ideas of respectability and beauty:
The British Embassy’s Guests, Sunday, October 29th – Paris, 1944
‘The women were a curiously dressed bunch in a fashion that struck the unaccustomed eye a strangely ugly – wide, baseball player’s shoulders, Dureresque headgear, suspiciously like domestic plumbing, made of felt and velvet, and heavy sandal-clogs which gave the wearers an added six inches in height but an ungainly, plodding walk. Unlike their austerity-abiding counterparts in England these women moved in an aura of perfume.’
No. 2 – Necessity breeds innovation, hybridity and style:
Stocking the Cellar
‘Diana [Lady Diana Cooper] wearing trousers, yachting cap, and biscuit-colored fox coat…’
Churchill’s arrival, November 10th
‘Diana, in pants and bandanna…’
No.3 – Never be too quick to judge who is best-dressed:
Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas
‘During the years of cold and shortages, Gertrude and Alice became friends with a neighbour at Aix, a simple young man named Pierre Balmain, who had a taste for antiques and a natural bent for designing women’s clothes. In fact he made with his own hands heavy tweeds and warm garments for Gertrude and Alice to wear during the hard winters. Now he has opened a shop in Paris. At first showing to the press Gertrude and Alice arrived with their huge dog, Basket. Gertrude in a tweed skirt, an old cinnamon-colored sack, and Panama hat, looked like Corot’s self-portrait. Alice, in a long Chinese Garment of bright colors with a funny flowered toque, had overtones of the “Widow Twankey,” a comic transvestite from the vaudeville stage. Gertrude, seeing the world of fashion assembled, whispered: “Little do they know that we are the only people here dressed by Balmain, and it’s just as well for him that they don’t!’
No. 4 – Fashion and Art = Sex and Love
Bébé Bérard and the Jackals, British Embassy, Paris
‘Bébé inspired, proceeded to illustrate with his pencil the fashions of the new dressmaker Dior. These, he says, have the same sense of sex appeal as Chanel created after the First World War. A theory was put forward that fashion was anti-art, that “chic” was to art the same as sex appeal is to love.’
Perhaps later I’ll share what I learnt about New York … But for now, I must get on with what I supposed to be researching …
Source: Cecil Beaton, Memoirs of the 40s, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1972
In a portrait of Marcel Kutumela, beneath the brim of a fedora hat, her cool gaze extends toward and beyond the viewer. It at once implores attention and inserts distance between subject and spectator. Her hat and layered garment cover her body and impart an old world masculinity. Dramatic lighting heightens the theatricality of the picture, which resembles a film noir set, and engages viewers. Yet as soon as they begin to penetrate the surface, the image disappears. It is one slide among many, projected without contextualisation onto a bare wall. Viewers are confronted with other faces, other looks, and the individuals they observed become a community. In this set of photographic portraits, clothing functions as a conspicuous tool in interpreting identity and relationships, between person and group, and spectator and subject.
The images are part of Zanele Muholi’s (b. 1972) Faces and Phases portrait series, and the above installation is from Isibonelo/Evidence, the current exhibition of her work at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Viewers are able to view the actual silver gelatin prints in a large room behind the wall of slides, where Muholi’s concern with the materiality of identity is unmistakable. She has written, “In Faces and Phases I present our existence and resistance through positive imagery of black queers (especially lesbians) in South African society and beyond. I show our aesthetics through portraiture. […] Faces express the person, and Phases signify the transition from one stage of sexuality or gender expression and experience to another.” Clothing thus serves to articulate and document the process of identity fabrication, as well as incite viewers to question their own thought process. According to Muholi,
The viewer is invited to contemplate questions such as: what does an African lesbian look like? Is there a lesbian aesthetic or do we express our gendered, racialised and classed selves in rich and diverse ways? Is this lesbian more ‘authentic’ than that lesbian because she wears a tie and the other does not? Is this a man or a woman? Is this a transman? Can you identify a rape survivor by the clothes she wears?
The cultural context of violence and inequality that envelops these portraits–reinforced by personal testimonies scrawled on an adjacent wall–sets the exhibition’s grave tone. It is the first installation viewers see in Isibonelo/Evidence, and is perhaps the most meaningful counterpart to The Dinner Party (1974-79) by Judy Chicago, which permanently resides in an adjoining room. Like its predecessor, Faces and Phases was created during a moment of upheaval in terms of sexual identity and rights. It also concerns the individual identities of a marginalised group, an how they are classified through their own production. Production in the earlier instance was expressed through the iconography of women in history, and, in Muholi’s work, by the ways everyday people style themselves. This helps visitors relate to the dynamics of being and seeing, and urges them to reflect on their own participation in the politics of appearance today.
Lee Miller, born Elizabeth Miller (April 23 1907) started her career as a successful fashion model after a fateful run-in with Condé Nast on the streets of New York City during the 1920s. Such a crossing of paths resulted in Miller landing her first modelling job for American Vogue, and she became a favourite model and muse to some of the greatest American fashion photographers of the day, including Edward Steichen. After returning to Paris in 1929, Miller went on to become a pupil of the surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray, who inspired her to open her own photographic studio. Switching from one side of the camera to the other, Miller became a unique talent, performing with brilliance on either side of the lens.
Miller’s career as a photographer resulted in various portraits and fashion assignments being published inside the glossy pages Vogue. She joined British Vogue as a freelance photographer in 1940. However, with the on-going struggles of the war, Miller found that working for a ‘frivolous’ publication such as Vogue was becoming a drain on her own morale. In 1942 she applied and was accepted by the US army for accreditation as a war correspondent. What followed was a series of photographs documenting the British home front, before she headed to France and Germany where Miller shadowed the steady successes of the Allied advances.
The accompanying image of the Hollywood actress Marlene Dietrich was captured by Miller after the liberation of Paris in September 1944. During the war, many of Paris’ finest Couturiers had closed shop. Therefore, this image of Marlene is particularly important as it signalled the re-opening of the fashion house Schiaparelli.
Marlene Dietrich, born in Berlin in 1901, became one of the most glamorous leading ladies in film of the 1930s and 1940s. Famous for her ability to challenge the accepted notions of femininity, Dietrich often wore trousers and more masculine fashions both on – and off – screen. In this respect, Marlene’s sense of fashion combined with her German origins and her relocation to America, in order to crack Hollywood, meant that the actress came to resemble the sought-after exotic other.
Dietrich as ‘other’ can be explored in relation to the Schiaparelli evening coat she wears in the black and white photograph. The Damask fabric is almost oriental in appearance with its floral embellishment and decorative detailing. However, the coat is also positioned within the context of the war period as well. The single-breasted construction of the coat combined with the gold threaded toggles and matching belt allude to a military uniform. Whereas the coat had originally been part of Schiaparelli’s 1938 Zodiac collection, when placed within the context of war the clothing becomes imbued with colonialism and empire: ‘The design is so subtle that one hardly notices that it represents the British lion capering among faint bluish flowers.’
Marlene can be understood as challenging the accepted notions of femininity whilst wearing this evening coat because of both the feminine and masculine qualities of the garment. Her styled hair, painted nails and the make-up on her face indicate typical womanly conventions, especially when combined with the floral patterning of the evening coat. However, on the other hand, the appropriations of military uniform characteristics allude to a more masculine identity. Such an observation is particularly interesting because the coat can be identified as embodying wartime culture. With more men volunteering and being conscripted to join the front, women had to step out of their traditional sphere and enter into the world of work – something that had typically been reserved as the more masculine domain. As a result, the construction and decoration of this coat when read within the historiography of wartime culture can be seen as reflecting these changes within society
Calvocoressi, R., Lee Miller: Portraits From A Life (London, 2002)
You may not have noticed, but there are currently two exhibitions on in London about Alexander McQueen’s work. While the V&A’s ‘Savage Beauty’ has garnered most of the headlines, and ticket sales, Nick Waplington’s display of photographs he took of McQueen’s ‘Horn of Plenty’ collection of 2009 at Tate Britain, is an excellent insight into working process, and a fascinating combination of artist and designer in terms of themes and approach.
Spread across several rooms, all of which were empty when I visited, the exhibition comprises huge prints that chronicle the collection’s progress from initial ideas, through mood boards, fittings and fabric choices, to the ultimate culmination of months of work – the catwalk show. What is so refreshing in Waplington’s images is his ability to capture the emotions of those involved, and, allied to this, the number of people necessary to produce such complex designs. His photographs show McQueen, at times elated, at times exhausted, surrounded by the detritus of a busy studio. Spools of material, the omnipresent pin cushion wristbands worn by assistants, packets of cigarettes, chocolate bars, pens and sketches scattered on desks, as McQueen’s team strive to perfect each design, and thus its moment of triumph on the runway. Fit models stand stoically, as fabric is swathed and pinned to their form. Accessories are tried out and assembled. Each stage presents new complications, and new approaches, as shown in the detailed images.
Waplington juxtaposes these stills of fashion’s work in progress with photographs taken from a landfill site not far from McQueen’s studio. Each room in the exhibition presents the viewer with comparisons between luxury and excess, and the gruesome, yet oddly aesthetic piles of rubbish consumer society leaves in its wake. In each case, Waplington’s technical approach to his subject is evident; as much care is taken in a composition of fabric swatches pinned to a board, as with a stack of discarded compressed papers and food wrappers. The East End is therefore shown as a site of both creation and destruction, or rather of the beginning and end of the consumer food chain. Location becomes significant to each – part of McQueen’s own heritage and identity, and the throwaway culture and hidden recesses of the city where rubbish is laid to rest.
The final room is painted black; a literal dark room that glows with light boxes, each displaying an image of the catwalk shows backstage theatricality. Models are dressed in the final designs – and McQueen’s themes of exaggeration are dramatised further by their red lipsticked mouths and whited out faces. Waplington’s juxtapositions become even sharper, as the delicate silks used to create ‘plastic bag’ hats are worn by elegant women for the ensuing show, their gauzy delicacy mimicking the plastic sheaths photographed so scrupulously in the previous rooms.
The exhibition as a whole is an incredible journey through McQueen’s work on this self-consciously retrospective collection. He was reflecting on his own oeuvre, on the extremes of femininity that fascinated him, on his own roots and influences. In turn, Waplington’s approach mirrors and amplifies this, his artistic sensibility commenting on what he witnessed, and his role as outsider/observer of McQueen’s relentless pursuit of a fashion aesthetic that was self-reflexive and critical of its own world view.
‘Nick Waplington, Alexander McQueen: Working Process’ is on at the Tate Britain until 17 May
Each month in 2015, we will post an interview with one of our alumni, as part of our celebrations of this year’s auspicious anniversary. The Courtauld’s History of Dress students have gone on to forge careers in a diverse and exciting range of areas. We hope you enjoy reading about their work, and their memories of studying here.
Sarah Brown, MA (2013)
Sarah Brown is a recent alumnus of the History of Dress MA. After working for Lord Snowden during her degree, she went on to work as a Project Assistant for Lord Snowden for a recent publication of his photographs. She went on to be an assistant at the Condé Nast archive and library, and is now an International Permissions Coordinator for Condé Nast.
You graduated fairly recently in 2013, do you miss the student life and the Courtauld?
I definitely miss student life at the Courtauld and being surrounded by like-minded people. I miss learning new things and the ability to go to exhibitions during the day – instead of on the weekends with the rest of London!
Having studied art history as an undergraduate, did you find there was a difference in mentality and discipline between history of art and history of dress?
I think I expected there to be a bigger difference than there was. History of art provided me with the perfect foundation to studying history of dress – in the sense of analysing an object, considering its historical context and relevance. However, I do think I approached history of dress in a much more interdisciplinary way. I was using sources and theories from sociology to anthropology to magazines, newspapers and films – and I loved the sense of freedom that it gave me. For me that was probably the main difference, that I could draw on a wider range of approaches.
Were fashion and the history of dress always of interest to you, or was it something entirely new to you?
History of dress was new to me in terms of studying it but not in terms of admiring and being fascinated by it! That all started when I was three years old and obsessed with the film Singin’ in the Rain. I was enthralled by the costumes and used it as my inspiration for any fancy dress game or party as a child. This extended into other ‘Old Hollywood’ films from the ‘40s to ‘60s, and when I was around 11 years old I discovered Vogue and found out the fashion world existed.
What was your favourite aspect of the course; do you have any particularly fond memories of your time at the Courtauld?
My favourite aspect of the course was visiting archives, such as the dress archive with Beatrice Behlen at the Museum of London. I loved analysing and studying actual garments, as there is only so much you can get from studying from an image or a description and it helped to bring the course to life. My fondest memories surround the people I became friends with at the Courtauld, from chatting too nosily in the library (or pub) to visiting exhibitions together. I learnt a lot from people who were not on my course – everything from 17th century Dutch art to digital and internet art, all just from chatting to people.
Have you remained in contact with the Courtauld and in particular the History of Dress department?
I have through the alumni network such as attending drinks and the summer party. I recently got to see Rebecca Arnold, which was really great, and just speaking with her reignited my passion for the subject. And I still go to fashion/ history of dress exhibitions with a friend from my course.
As a recent graduate of the Courtauld, what have you been up to since graduating?
After graduating I was straight into working as Project Assistant on a book about Lord Snowdon’s life and career as a photographer and designer. Once the book was completed early last year I worked in the Condé Nast archive and library as an assistant. My duties varied from scanning Cecil Beaton negatives and prints (it was amazing to see how he cropped and retouched the photographs and how many images he took before the final published shot) to research on the Vogue books (I researched for Shoes, Hats and Bags). I also undertook research on photographers, such as Clifford Coffin and John Deakin. I then had a brief stint at the Courtauld! I came back as the temporary events coordinator and it was great to see how the university and gallery works behind the scenes. So I have been all over the place and have learnt so much from all my different experiences, colleagues and tasks. I am now settled back at Condé Nast in the UK Permissions office.
You mentioned the photographer Lord Snowdon, what was your role working for him, and while there did you uncover some hidden gems within his archive?
I started out working on behalf of Snowdon in the Vogue archive – whilst I was still at the Courtauld. One day a week I would go and look through volumes of Vogue since the 1950s, sourcing his work that was published in the magazine. After graduating, I moved on to being the Project Assistant on the now published book Snowdon – A Life in View. It is an amazingly curated book looking at his career as a photographer and designer and includes ephemera and never before seen photographs, and largely looks at his work for Vogue in the 1950s and 1980s. I did everything from the scanning of the ephemera and Polaroids to writing the captions, fact checking and liaising with the designers, photo agencies and high profile contributors. I constantly found hidden gems whilst working in the dark room and studio, some of my favourites were the Polaroids from the 80s – one of an unrecognisable Tilda Swindon with a mane of curly golden hair! Other gems include letters from Diana Vreeland and the Queen.
You also mentioned the Condé Nast archive and your dissertation was on the ‘Worktown’ series of photographs by Humphrey Spender. Is it safe to say that photography and the role of dress in photography is of interest to you?
Absolutely! It is an ever-growing interest. I would love to study the role of dress in photography more and it is usually where I start my analysis of any photo; even if there is no people or clothes in the image I can comment on the absence of the clothes and the significance of that.
Can you talk about the photographers and images that have sparked your interest?
How long have we got? It all started with my undergraduate dissertation of August Sander and his photographs that were to be a typology of German people during the Weimar Republic. My thesis centred on his photograph Painter’s Wife. Her androgynous nature and return of the gaze, her almost aggressive stance, modern baggy, white outfit and slicked back hair intrigued me. I managed to write a whole thesis around this image and realised I wanted to continue studying photographers. Also my interest in the relationship between dress and photography probably stems from first seeing Lee Miller’s work, whilst I was an undergraduate, and being intrigued about how she could be a wartime as well as fashion photographer. Other photographers that have sparked my interest are Saul Leiter and his early colour work, Margaret Bourke White, Edith Tudor Hart, Martin Munkacsi and William Klein.
Now you’ve recently started in a new role at Condé Nast. How are you finding it?
Very interesting! I get a real insight into how the magazines are run and all the business factors that go into making them run smoothly. I deal with all the foreign editions of Condé Nast magazines, from Vogue Germany and Vogue Australia to GQ Taiwan and Glamour South Africa. I also still get to go to the archive and do research on the Vogue books and syndication requests. I love working with the international Condé Nast titles, despite not being able to read most of them. It has given me a much wider appreciation of how countries interpret the trends they see at fashion weeks and still incorporate their own style or take on them. In particular I love the fashion shoots in Vogue Italia and Vogue Korea.
Working at Condé Nast, do you feel a pressure to dress well or in a certain way for work? (By which I mean, are all the stereotypes and clichés surrounding fashion and lifestyle publications true?)
When I first started working there all I could think about was ‘what an earth am I going to wear?’ but I was put at ease immediately. There are some people who are dressed very fashionably or stylishly – which I love as you get a source of inspiration just walking down the hallway. But it is very relaxed and doesn’t play up to those fashion clichés. You can pretty much wear what you want, from smart work wear to a billowing pink skirt to jeans and trainers. So I usually dress for my mood.
Have you found that the course has shaped your career trajectory or was this always your intention?
In a way the course has completely shaped it. It was always my intention to work in fashion or dress history but I did not see it as a realistic or possible option – and the course changed that. What it taught me is that there is a whole world belonging to the history of dress and that you can get jobs in it or find different pathways that can take you there one day. The course has given me a sense of confidence that if you work hard and have passion for the subject, a career in the history of dress is possible – I couldn’t have asked for more really.
Do you have any further ambitions or goals, in either your career or personal life?
Oh yes – I guess my main goal is to be respected and distinguished in my field, which would hopefully be the history of photography and dress. Writing more for dress and photography magazines and publications would be a dream, as would becoming a curator. But right now I am focusing on the present and I am just making the most out of my current job.
If you could own one item of dress, from any period in history or by any designer, what would it be and why?
The piece that first came to mind is the Christian Dior ‘Junon’ dress from 1949. It was the first piece of clothing I ever wrote an essay on (when I was fifteen in art & design) and it has always stuck with me as it is when I realised how much I loved researching and writing about dress history. The dress has a full skirt that is covered in sequins and beads and it seems to embody the glamour and grandeur of the era of haute couture and ‘Old Hollywood’, yet it doesn’t look far from a Vivienne Westwood or Alexander McQueen design – showing its timelessness.
Do you have any words of wisdom for any current or future History of Dress students?
Live in the moment. Throw yourself into the course and you will get so much out of it. Enjoy being able to devour books in the library and always pick essay and dissertation topics that you are passionate and excited about. Even try and get an internship whilst you’re studying and stay in touch with curators you meet and each other, and, most importantly, listen to Rebecca!
‘Six herons standing quietly in a pool of water’. Set unobtrusively against the backdrop of the Design Museum’s ‘Women Fashion Power’ exhibition, Amelia Troubridge’s photographs do just that. Standing quietly along the room’s outer walls, amidst the vast array of multimedia objects pertaining to the exhibition’s theme, the dozen, photographed women exude a quiet confidence. They purvey the scene, staring quizzically at the visitor as if to say, ‘Oh you’re here, well you can observe me, but I’m just going to carry on being fabulous.’ The installation is made up of images from the London-based photographer’s latest book entitled ‘Joan of Arc Had Style’ (Trolley Books). Taking its title from Charles Bukowski’s canonical poem, Amelia’s photographs pay homage to stylish, influential women encountered during her long-spanning career as a photographer.
I caught up with Amelia to ask her a couple of things about the installation and her new book….
The launch of your book fittingly coincides with International Women’s Day, as well as the Design Museum’s exhibition, which is very much in line with the agenda of your latest body of work. Coincidence or planned?
Planned and a little bit of coincidence! To get the project out there, the sponsor and the Design Museum all realised Women’s Day was a great time to release this book.
Could you say a couple of things about the book?
It was a project that was a long time in the making, an idea I had ten years ago, that took on a number of forms and different edits. It became a collaboration with a lot of women, a place to discuss our lives, the world we live in, and to celebrate being a woman, individual style and creative thought. I would meet women and want to photograph them with this project in mind. Although the book came together in a very unplanned way, which is very much how I find myself living my life and developing my career. You never know who you are going to be working with next. It also became a personal story about my life as a woman.
I couldn’t help but think of Bukowski’s invocations of style as I walked through the exhibition, particularly the line ‘sometimes people give you style’. What would you define as style? ‘Women Fashion Power’ aims to show how women have used clothes to enhance their position in the world. Do you think style is heavily dependant on fashion or does it transcend materiality?
I was interested in looking at personal style. That comes from within….not just in the fashion sense…but in the sense that when a women walks into a room, she resonates a certain energy – that’s style. I like the idea that women can be whomever they want today. This was not the case not so long ago….
Whilst the exhibition is organised chronologically, the placement of your photographs defy this linear progression. Was this a conscious decision? To what extent did you pair your images with the objects on display? I thought that the image of Tiko Tuskadze next to the voluminous opera coat worked really well, the photograph could have been taken in the early twentieth century.
I didn’t over think where the images hung. I think it came quite naturally to me. The young girl came first because I was interested in looking at all ages of women. I liked Dita [Von Teese] in between the two images of the women with men because that Dita image is about questions of love and identity without the conventional power couple of the man beside her. Tiko [Tuskadze] worked perfectly there with the mannequin; that was our favourite. The image of Justine [Picardie] was very hard and corporate, so I felt it worked well next to the brightly lit technology display within the exhibition. I’m a visual person. I put something somewhere and it either works for me or doesn’t. I’m a great believer in going with your gut feeling.
I did try at one point to do my book in chronological order but it didn’t work. The book felt ‘magaziney’. In the end I handed over the final edit to my publisher. The book worked much better that way.
Back to Bukowski – thinking about style as ‘a way of doing, a way of being done’, can you talk a little bit about the artistic input of the sitter, alongside your own vision? The image of Polly Morgan comes to mind, casual yet staged, dark yet innocent…how did you capture her style in the creation of this image?
It always helps if you think the person you are photographing has immense personal style, and I think Polly has great style. She arrived in an old Jaguar and has great legs and makes beautiful art. But I love the idea of her as a little messily dressed, she shows herself as an artist like that and I find imperfection as something beautiful, so that was something I wanted to display. She really got into the shoot and we spent a couple of hours doing it. I like the formality of the table and chair, in the informal surrounding of nature. I think nature inspires most of us artists, so all the elements worked well together: landscape, props, persons and what they are wearing.
Finally, you have met a huge amount of inspiring, strong, courageous, fabulous women throughout your career. What do you seek to capture, preserve and share through these portraits?
For this project I was interested in collecting images of women as modern heroes/warriors; women taking on new frontiers, and as always, capturing a little bit of what’s going on on the inside too.