Last week I accompanied my ‘Fashion and Photography: viewing and reviewing global images of dress over the last one hundred years’ undergraduate class to see the recent exhibition, co-curated by Renée Mussai and Mark Sealy MBE, at Autograph ABP, who are based at Rivington Place in Shoreditch. Black Chronicles II displays over two hundred never previously exhibited or published studio portraits of black subjects, including visiting performers, missionaries, students, dignitaries, servicemen or as of yet unidentified Britons, throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. The exhibition thus resurrects an unacknowledged archive of black photographic history in glass plate negatives and carte-de- visites held by the London Stereoscopic Company that have been buried in the Hulton Archive. Victorian Britain is re-presented in hauntingly beautiful and visually rich blown-up photographs, produced in a monochromatic palette and through a critical lens inspired by the influential writings of Jamaican born academic Professor Stuart Hall (1932-2014).
Highlights include portraits of Kalulu, the young companion to British explorer Henry Morton Stanley, and over thirty group and individual images of members of The African Choir (South African performers who travelled around the UK between 1891-3). Whilst these photographs reference Britain’s imperial and colonial past, and it would be easy to interpret them in terms of exotic ethnographic ‘types’, they unequivocally demonstrate black subjectivity through the self-assured styling of the sitters. Identities are fashioned through the use of props, accessories and fabrics, and the crispness and clarity of the reportage highlights these various textures. Gestures and poses are also employed to enable the sitters to consciously and thoughtfully engage with the photographer’s gaze. So, whilst it is important to understand the social, cultural and political conditions within which the photographs were produced, it is also vital that we readdress the images in terms of the subjects’ self-fashioning and self-presentation in order to fully understand the shifting asymmetries of power at play in black portraiture, then and now.
Women and space are frequent points of inquiry for London-based artist Maria Kapajeva. In her series entitled Interiors from 2012, she manipulates amateur photographs of Russian women in sexualised poses, and replaces their skin and bodily features with the bold pattern of surrounding wallpaper. Viewers’ sense of haptic visuality is roused by the tactility of the pictured textiles of home furnishings and clothing, including crushed velvets and synthetic satins. Pattern and texture intertwine so that space engulfs and integrates women subjects, while bodily absence paradoxically serves to remove their subjectivities from the image.
When I met Maria on 23rd May 2014 to discuss her work, she admitted that she chose the photographs for their post-Soviet interiors—easily recognisable through the wallpaper and bed covers’ prominent patterns—that she knew in her native Estonia. Yet the dated styles of the photographs’ interior decoration belie their more recent time of photography. This stylistic retrogression mirrors that in women’s lives. Wallpaper in lieu of skin serves to show the extent to which women in certain Eastern Bloc countries must still conform to a “domestic ideal.” Even as they attempt to stand out and become visible through poses in states of undress, they fail to escape the domination of their environment. In these absurd, integral images, objectified women are equated with domestic settings.
Maria explores women’s roles and the notion of integrality in different ways in her ongoing series A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman, in which she photographs women in their work environments. She explains that “[m]ost of these women have moved to a new country, as I have, not to get married, but to realize their own potential in whatever they do: write, draw, paint, photograph or invent. Working in collaboration with them, I try to find the ways to photograph each of them as a unique and strong personality in her own working environment.” The subject of one photograph, Elena, is thus defined as an artist by her studio space yet she stands out as an individual against its blurred details. Maria draws on such details—stacks of papers, folds of clothing, bric-a-brac—to shape the composition of these images. These minutiae also inform and complicate the construction of the sitter’s identity, but do not dominate as in Interiors.
Maria prefers that the sitters dress as they would normally in their ‘natural’ environments, and clothing varies as widely as their diverse personalities. As opposed to the original viewers or photographers of the Interiors series, she withdraws herself from the equation. The image is untouched and raw, in the sense that she does not use supplemental lighting, filtering or cropping techniques. And the subject is meant to dress for no one but herself. Eugenia, for example, who wears a garment of her own design, stands in the open space of a London rooftop. As the wind blows her voluminous collar it comes into contact with her face. Her body is the site of narrative and identity, informed by the interaction between dress and exterior.
During our conversation I sensed that Maria, who believes that too much importance is placed on specific dress codes, did not want to broach the subject of clothing. She likes that, as a photography lecturer at the University for the Creative Arts (Farnham), she can dress as she wishes. But this freedom poses its own problems.
My experience as Maria’s most recent sitter for the Portrait of the Artist series in October replicated my own research into the use of dress and its representation in the construction of identity, and the relationship between dress, ideas of appropriateness and how this relates to specific space.
Like Maria’s raw photos, clothes on the body leave bare a host of personal paradoxes, details and foibles. My relationship with the black linen shirt I wore during my portrait, paired with black trousers, is complex. As is my connection to the space in which I was photographed—my bedroom—where personal and professional lines are blurred. The shirt’s long, well-worn life is evidenced by its loose weave in some places. Yet its history is concealed by its simplicity. Knowing that I loved to write about its designer, a dear friend found it for me at a Paris flea market. It is thus a piece of evidence and resource, and a link to people and places, yet its early life is a mystery. These elements, contained within the coarse fabric, are my secret, and constant reminders at each touch against my skin. As captured in Maria’s image of me, my clothing and surroundings combine to inform my ideas of self. Her photograph exposes these connections and foregrounds the emotional links we have to our dress, and the ways we use them to negotiate our presence.
Kapajeva, M. ‘About A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman’, http://www.mariakapajeva.com/a-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-woman/
I met Edie when we were both about 11 years old on our first day of school. While most girls looked as though they had been dressed by their mothers, Edie wore a black t-shirt with the playboy bunny logo in pink glitter on the front. I think even then, I knew she was a bit different. I recently rediscovered a series of photographs I took of Edie for a GCSE Art project in 2006. I had just learned about the British photographer David Bailey and decided to take pictures of her dressed like Jean Shrimpton in mini dresses jumping around on a sofa. Little did we know that she would soon be sitting for the actual David Bailey!
We both took Rebecca Arnold’s course Dress and Identity in Twentieth Century Britain in our second year at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and I wanted to reflect with Edie here on how she recollects her time there and how the course may have impacted her current approach to writing and dressing.
Among other things, we took Rebecca’s course together in second year and, as you know, I enjoyed it so much I decided to take her MA (Documenting Fashion: Modernity, Films and Image in America and Europe, 1920-1945)! Do you think studying the history of dress has affected the way you think or write about fashion?
I think that academia, and the way that we study things in university, can be such a constructed system that it is impossible to continue to think about things in that same way once you leave university. I suppose that the academic way of looking and thinking gets tempered by ‘real life’. So those two modes exist at the same time in my head. Which is nice – it has given me the ability to look at things very objectively, as the products of a designer’s creative process, and as a continuation of the fashion ‘line’. But then equally, I really appreciate clothes simply as sensual objects, to be touched and worn and experienced on a purely intuitive, completely decontextualised level. Simply as clothes that make you feel good. I guess the course gave me a framework through which to think about fashion.
Your articles, like ‘Hidden Depths’ for Harper’s Bazaar (10 September 2013), and your recent work as senior contributing editor for Love Magazine, are a pleasure to read, where do you find your inspiration?
I never can! Which is probably why I don’t write more. I am really bad at thinking about what to write – nothing ever seems interesting enough. I think I am too cynical about what people might find interesting.
Do you miss The Courtauld?
Yes, I miss learning about things, and exercising my brain as if it was a muscle. I feel like my brain has become old and flabby. I miss hearing someone speak about the subject that they have devoted their entire career to.
When we were studying, we took trips to places like the Museum of London to reflect on subcultures. What do you think about the term ‘subcultural’?
I just don’t know if there are any subcultures any more. I’m not sure that anything gets enough time to properly incubate these days. Or maybe subcultures are just made in retrospect, and in 15 years time everyone will be going ‘ohhhhh, the cult of the hipster, what a great time that must have been’, and we’ll be looking on in horror and slight nausea.
You’re looking brilliant in the McQueen campaign at the moment and it made me think of the chapters we read about Britishness in fashion, do you think designers still trade on ideas of being British?
Oh yeah for sure! My entire career is built on plugging being British. In an increasingly globalised world, when designers are really thinking about how they are going to flog their product in Malaysia, something that is recognisable and locatable, and comes with the weight of history to validate its worth is incredibly saleable. I mean, designers are literally trading on it. So are models. The fact that the Victoria’s Secret Show is being held in London this year says a HUGE amount about the saleability of Britishness – VS is not a brand that would take a chance financially.
I remember your presentation in our Dress and Identity course about David Bowie’s album cover, I think it was Ziggy Stardust, and you recently saw a Kate Bush concert – why do you think fashion is so important to musicians?
Because if the music sucks at least they look good! Clothes are an extension of their self-expression, of the ideas and world that they are trying to push. Just look at how important the ‘makeover’ part of the X Factor process is. Especially when music is an increasingly visual medium, via YouTube and the greater importance of live shows (whereas previously perhaps one might have bought a record).
Do you enjoy dressing up?
I do. Some of the time. I spend my life dressing up at work so at home I really can’t be bothered. I might take to wearing silk pyjamas and dressing gowns everywhere. I do like fancy dress though. I like coming up with costumes more and more.
‘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.
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’.