By Genevieve Davis
MA, “Documenting Fashion: Modernity, Films and Image in America and Europe, 1920-1960”, The Courtauld, 2020-21.
At last night’s Fashion Interpretations Symposium we heard from three amazing speakers: Lisa Cohen, Associate Professor of English and of Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut; Olga Vainshtein, Senior Researcher at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow; and Elizabeth Kutesko, Lecturer in Cultural Studies at Central Saint Martins in London.
Lisa Cohen led with a poetic presentation on the relationship between clothing and grief. Clothing reminds us of those we have lost, a remnant of someone mourned. It can provide a sense of closeness to a loved one or a sense of catharsis through the giving away the clothes to others. Cohen first described an interview with a woman named Anne as they went through Anne’s parents’ clothing together. Reminiscing over a black bolero cardigan and a beautiful white lace dress, Cohen conveyed the sense of connection formed between people by clothing. Wearing, touching, or smelling a loved one’s clothing can trigger a kaleidoscope of memories. Cohen also touched upon her own relationship with filmmaker Jim Lyons, whose AIDS-related death she chose to speak poignantly on yesterday, which was World AIDS Day. She spoke of the bag of t-shirts he left her; a symbol of their friendship kept on her shelf for over a decade. Cohen’s personal interactions with each person she interviewed in her research brought to life the deep intimacy between clothing and relationships.
Olga Vainshtein provided an in-depth look at fashion in literature and cultural interpretations of illustration. Focusing on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1886 novel, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Vainshtein discussed how the illustrations of the little lord in his suit, drawn by Reginald Birch, sparked a trend in boys’ fashion. Though the novel provided few descriptions of Lord Fauntleroy’s suits, Birch was a popular illustrator and the vivid drawings were mimicked in magazines, with pictures of each outfit and the pieces required for it, so that mothers could order ready-made outfits for their sons in the latest style. The illustrations were based on Burnett’s son Vivian, and they were inspired by late-seventeenth century and early eighteenth-century court dress. Vainshtein’s presentation allowed us a peek into the way fashion and fiction interact through “cultural allusion,” demonstrating how literature has the ability to impact fashion as much as photography and film.
Elizabeth Kutesko rounded off the night with a talk on Claude and Dina Levi-Strauss’ photographs of São Paolo from 1935-37. In one image, Kutesko examined Dina Levi-Strauss’ tailored, manicured outfit that contrasted the wilderness around her as she explored Brazil, highlighting how São Paolo was poised between an agricultural past and an industrial future. She also highlighted the ways the snapshots captured the picturesque nature of the city, with modern skyscrapers and well-dressed pedestrians, while simultaneously including the “extra,” such as rubbish in the gutters. In the 1930s, São Paolo transformed into Brazil’s industrial centre, but Kutesko emphasized how the Levi-Strauss’ photographs emphasized the “unfinished” nature of the city, as light leaks and blurring mirrored its constant transformation. The concept of modernity varies from culture to culture, operating across national borders and within them. Kutesko concluded with the idea that photographs capture these moments of modernity, often immortalizing more than can be seen by a single glance.
These three speakers were unified in their emphasis on the importance of memory. Memory can be captured in photograph, touched in a piece of clothing left behind, or disseminated through a novel. Fashion, and the mediums through which it is displayed, provides pathways to explore these memories and the emotions they provoke.