Just a few years ago, using the word ‘emotion’ seemed dated and frivolous when the fashionable terms leaned more towards the ‘rational’. Yet, today, I feel that there is an urgent need for more empathy, human connection in society. I want to research where emotion ‘fits’ within a fashion exhibition. Do people sometimes experience an emotional reaction while visiting a fashion exhibition? What caused it? Did it make them want to stay at the exhibition longer? Did the feeling last in the wake of their visit?
As a curator, my work is 2D. Besides writing, there is a lot of cutting and pinning images on walls. While I’m doing this, I have a sense of the ‘emotion’ in the narrative we are creating. In the exciting final stage of exhibition making, when the exhibition designers and the production team take over from the curator, the 2D plans, texts and mood boards morph into architecture. The emotion now transforms into experience, and the story becomes real.
For this specific project, I want to investigate what can generate connection and emotion in a fashion exhibition. I want to think about the role of the mannequin and the importance of the stories we secretly make up for them. I will do this through the medium of collage and I am hoping to collaborate with the storytellers in this network. Perhaps they can help me compose new ways to tell stories and to transfer real emotion to our visitors?
Amateur movies provide a provocative resource for examining fashion in the twentieth century. In the first instance they are kinetic records of how people dressed, but amateur films were also vernacular creative works in their own right; like fashion, they offered a medium for creatively engaging with mass-marketed materials in a personal form.
Both fashion and amateur film are media of self-presentation: How to present oneself to the world, or to the camera? The masthead of Movie Makers magazine, published for amateur filmmakers from 1926-1954 highlighted this in their unofficial motto: “To see ourselves as others see us.” But what does fashion and dress mean to people at a local level. And how, to paraphrase Rebecca Arnold, does the medium of amateur film shift the meaning of fashion?
The Amateur Movie Database (amateurcinema.org) includes more than 2000 films produced in the middle of the twentieth century (1923-1971). Drawing on this corpus of films, and using digital techniques to excavate patterns of content, theme, and geographical variation, I am investigating how the amateur movie camera captured and mediated people’s creative engagement with dress.
As I have been working on this project, I have become especially interested in amateur travelogues, and what they reveal about fashion and visual culture. What do people film, when they are documenting their surroundings, or visiting somewhere new? How does the amateur gaze negotiate local specificity and exotic fantasy? When amateurs place fashion alongside monuments and architecture, how do they understand the relationship between fashion and the built environment? By looking at some specific films more closely, fashion (especially in its more casual, everyday forms) and amateur cinema emerge as parallel phenomena in American visual culture.
“Are words clothes or the putting off of clothes?” wrote the poet Hyam Plutzik (1911-1962). Finding my way between words and clothes—finding words that are equal to the putting off and on of clothes—is a challenge on ordinary days, which these are not. What are the words for clothes when getting dressed, like so many other habits, has changed—when daily life for some, as the fashion critic Robin Givhan has put it, involves being “turned into mere ectoplasm in pajamas”? And for others means not being able to wear adequate protective covering, at work in hospitals and elsewhere?
These days I am living apart from many of my clothes, including those I’ve saved of lost loved ones, having held onto them in some cases for decades. In my project for the Fashion Interpretations group I’m exploring the lives and afterlives of such personally archived articles of clothing. But for this blog I wanted to post images from an institutional archive, which I visited on March 2, a week before my social distancing project began. The Historical Costume and Textile Collection at the University of Connecticut was started in 1898, the year the university’s Home Economics Department was founded. Created through the work of professors and students, it grew eventually to over 8000 items, almost half of which were garments. Not too many years ago this corpus was described as the largest study collection of historical garments and textiles in New England. It even included a conservation lab. Today it is housed in a makeshift and temporary space and is being rescued, culled, and tended by the textile and costume historian Lynne Z. Bassett. I was introduced to it and her by the curator and art historian Alexis Boylan, a professor in the Art & Art History Department and the Africana Studies Institute at UConn; I traveled there with the historian of visual culture and of science Jennifer Tucker, who is my colleague at Wesleyan University and is expert, too, at bringing people together.
Bassett has been hired (one day a week) to sort through the collection, make decisions about what to deaccession, reconstruct donor records, impose some organization. As she escorted us through its several crowded rooms, I photographed mannequins and men’s and women’s hats; wedding dresses and “bodices that have lost their skirts”; Vogue magazines and Vogue patterns; woolen swimming costumes and an 18th-century military coat; purses from the 1840s and block-printed textiles from the 1930s. There are some designer fashions—including a rack and a half of clothes by Arnold Scaasi, which he donated. But most of what’s there are everyday clothes, which aren’t usually collected (because of their perceived lesser importance, and because they often fall apart from wear), which makes them rare. Living these distanced days with V., (who, when I showed her this mass of apparel and accessories, described it as stuff “that would have make the Cockettes scream”—with pleasure), I keep returning to my images of these crammed racks and drawers, promiscuous in their proximity to one another.
In her introduction to the glossy photobook National Geographic Fashion, the anthropologist Joanne Eicher writes: ‘fashion is, after all, about change, and change happens in every culture because human beings are creative and flexible’ (2001, p. 17). The suggestion is that fashion does not have to be characterised only by rapid change in clothing and appearance styles, which have crystallised it as a distinctly urban, ‘Western’ phenomenon. Rather, Eicher reiterates that fashion is a lived experience, which has existed in all cultures, at all times – but may take different forms and paces of innovation. My project for Fashion Interpretations takes this bold assertion – which constitutes a critical decentring of what ‘fashion’ is – as its starting point.
I’m using an equally expansive definition of fashion to problematise my understanding of modernity and modernisation as it unfolded within Brazil in the first part of the twentieth century. What sorts of possibilities does the Global South offer to explore fashion in new contexts and different mediums? Does fashion have to emerge in the city, or can it exist in any flourishing society? Could my findings help to reposition European fashion as simply one system – one experience of modernity – that operates in parallel to, sometimes in competition against, but frequently in exchange with, numerous alternative fashion systems operating globally, not all of them capitalist?
I want to begin my blog post with a story, in much the same way that fashion is a powerful medium for telling stories. In 1935, a 26-year old academic, accompanied by his wife, travelled from Paris – the capital of haute couture – to São Paulo, a city rapidly on the move, in order to help establish the University of São Paulo. The couple documented the changing landscape of São Paulo, which was undergoing modernisation, industrialisation and urbanisation, as well as witnessing emerging consumer cultures. Their cameras captured people on the city’s streets sporting European fashions adapted for warmer climes and diverging tastes. Whilst in the summer holidays, the couple escaped the city to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in Mato Grosso, a large state in Western Central Brazil. They collected items of visual and material culture from the Bororo and Kadiwéu indigenous peoples that they encountered, in addition to documenting their extensive sartorial systems. The couple returned to France with this knowledge (that equated, of course, to power), where it was held by the Musée de l’Homme (now part of the Musée du Quai Branly). Their names were Claude and Dina (née Dreyfus) Lévi-Strauss.
My aim over the next few months is to use the Lévi-Strauss’ photographs that exist in archives in Paris and São Paulo to think deeply about where fashion is located. What role does medium play in enabling us to recognise fashion in new contexts? At what point does dress become fashionable by association? I’ll use fashion as a tool to explore the shifting power relations that underpin the world we live in. I’m excited to share these ideas with the inspiring individuals involved in this network…
It is a huge pleasure to work alongside Principle Investigator Rebecca Arnold, and the international academics and practitioners involved in our Fashion Interpretations Network, and to have the opportunity to weave together conversations that many of us have been having separately. I am very much looking forward to meeting many of the contributors in May.
The medium associated with my practice is installation: exhibiting historic dress and fashion in both gallery and museum settings. A recent commission by art historian and curator Roman Kurzmeyer for his extraordinary ongoing series of events at Amden, on the side of a Swiss mountain, allowed this process to be extended further into a different kind of installation – creating props for an exhibition environment without objects.
The AHRC Networking Project will allow me to reflect upon this process and the conceptual value of the prop in exhibition-making: the object’s impact when experienced in the round as is always done with dress can question the notion of the frame, and the discreet categories of object and context. I will concentrate on my case study of late 18th and early 19th century studies of mythological ‘attributes’ collected and illustrated for teaching children and their uses for new ideas about contemporary exhibition-making.
If you haven’t seen Burberry Prorsum’s Spring 2000 campaign, I insist that you go and look at the images immediately. As a gal who grew up immersed in Britain’s bizarre 00s culture (2000-2010 saw me transition from mini-me to little-woman), this shoot speaks to me through a diverse and divisive assortment of distinctly British nuance. The Burberry Prorsum ready-to-wear collection, prorsum which in Latin means to move “forwards”, was launched in 1998 by the British luxury fashion house’s then creative director Roberto Menichetti. In this frenzy of faux-candid shots by Mario Testino, supermodels Kate Moss, Stella Tennant and Liberty Ross dance through the bustling set of a raucous & decadent wedding party – with one, distinct Burberrian twist. The bride, Miss Moss, wears check. A check triangle-bikini, a check 00s-style svelte slip dress with a billowing veil to boot, a sweet but boxy check-print A-line skirt and tweed jacket twin set; the print is the thread that runs through each individual photograph, weaving together the parts of a wider narrative into one cohesive whole.
This shoot was intended to push Burberry forward into its newly reimagined and, most importantly, much sexier future (which was further heightened by Christopher Bailey’s arrival after his departure from under Tom Ford’s electrically sexy reign at Gucci in 2001), retaining its quintessential Britishness but stripping the luxury brand of its “undesirable” associations with two polarising social stereotypes: the Burberry check’s newly acquired position as the poster-fabric for Britain’s “chav culture” (which would continue well into the noughties) and their longstanding union with British conservatism, merrily lining the biscuit-beige trenches of sloane-rangers for many decades past – townies vs. country life. It was a storyline that traversed the Atlantic, perpetuated by British and American tabloids alike, The New York Times Magazine even publishing a feature on ‘The ‘Chav’ Hat In Elizabethan England’. This mass-dissemination of Burberry’s staple, heritage tartan, soft yet structured, versatile yet enduring; was undoubtedly the consequence of counterfeit-culture. In the storyline of this ad campaign, the check is very strategically recast as the titular lead (it doesn’t hurt that it’s draped across Moss’ super*nova*model frame), and its importance is reclaimed with vigour but also a knowing artfulness. As though Menichetti understands the much-needed influence of gimmickry in the process of Burberry’s rebranding, so here he/Testino play with a complex form of gimmick – the self-referential kind.
In 2012, Maureen Mullen, the director of research and advisory for L2 “a think tank for digital innovation” – which that year named Burberry the top-ranked brand in its ‘Digital IQ Index’ for the second consecutive year – stated that: “Burberry in 2005 meant British and plaid … that brand now, in the minds of consumers, means British, plaid – and innovation”. The utilisation of gimmickry, a tongue-in-cheek self-mocking, could have played a small role in the realignment of Burberry’s public image – though a clamp-down on counterfeiting, huge investments into technological innovation and the hiring of Angela Ahrendts couldn’t have hurt the brand either.
In today’s contemporary global fashion market, we see gimmick in design everywhere. Designers including Virgil Abloh and his Off-White streetwear offerings, fashion industry commentators @diet_prada or Instagram designer/illustrators like @benjaminseidler interpret contemporary pop-culture through shtick-coloured glasses; with entire collections showing at fashion month often being focused around one, singular gimmick. Take Jeremy Scott for example and his tenure at Moschino, with Scott currently performing as the 2010s pop-culture “King of Kitsch”, we have seen him repurpose everything, from literal rubbish and black bin-liner minis (AW17), to kids cut-out clothes mocked up as life-size looks (SS17, à la AW00 Galliano), Gigi Hadid as a ginormous bouquet of flowers (SS18, à la René Gruau for Dior in the 1970s) and the infamous McShino “Click & Collect” straight from the runway AW14 collection.
But as Franco Moschino put in print (Moschino AW 2000), sometimes we simply have to exclaim: “Too much irony!”
Interwar fashion editorials contain a dizzying mix of visual styles. Extending over multiple pages, several illustrators’ work is interspersed between photographers’ interpretations of the newest styles. How fascinating to see Boutet de Monvel’s soft pencil sketches of modern suits – with force lines suggesting a model’s movement – next to hazily romantic photographs by Baron de Meyer that focus on the glimmer of evening gowns.
Such juxtapositions require a sophisticated reader, one able to adjust her eye rapidly to varied representational styles and to understand the ways each artist invites her to consider body, dress and context. While most fashion photography of the era was studio bound, this did not hamper the vision of de Meyer, Edward Steichen and their peers – modernist, surrealist and realist elements featured in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. While drawings of contemporary fashion ranged widely, from Érte’s extravagant fantasies to the minimal lines of Reynaldo Luza. Collections coverage therefore came in the form of enticing experiments that combined a centuries old art form – drawing with the newest photographic technology.
For Fashion Interpretations I focus on American fashion magazines of the 1920s and 1930s to analyse these wide-ranging editorials. How does clothing resonate in each medium? Does the reader/viewer experience fashion differently in illustration and photography? And how does each artist’s style and interpretation impact fashion’s meanings?
By working alongside the international team of curators, academics, writers, illustrators, stylists and journalists taking part in our Fashion Interpretations Network, I can discuss my research with specialists in various media and explore my findings from different perspectives. It is exciting to consider the results of working in such a stimulating environment – to discover the significance of medium to fashion’s meanings.