Review: Fashion Cities Africa, Brighton Museum by Lindsay Parker

Situated in Brighton museum, Fashion Cities Africa focuses on four African Cities and the key agents involved in their fashion scenes, from designers and stylists to photographers and bloggers, a diverse and vibrant representation of fashion and style is presented to the visitor opening with the exclamation that “The time for Africa is now. The world is looking to us for inspiration” (Tiffany Amber, designer.)

The exhibition is made up of a selection of garments, interspersed with photography, video and sound which are displayed across three rooms and divided into different sections – with each of the fashion cities (Johannesburg, Casablanca, Lagos and Nairobi) made distinguishable through the use of different coloured backdrops. A series of platforms, line the edges of the space and statistics and key information for each city are also provided. Each platform is dedicated to a “fashion agent” and contains a selection of three or four outfits along with information about the agent and the garments on display.

A range of women’s and menswear, couture and street style are displayed with pieces ranging from the androgynous styling of Sunny Dolat (Niarobi) to the elegant formal wear of Lagos fashion week, craft centred pieces created by traditional Moroccan artisans (Amina Agueznay, Casablanca), to the politically aware collection of The Satarists (Johannesburg), serving to create an impression of the diversity and depth of African fashion. It is clear that the agents themselves were involved in curating the “looks” that appeared in the exhibition and that they hold meaning for them.

What makes the exhibition particularly engaging is the choice of subjects; the overarching theme being that the agents are all advocates for enterprise and creativity. They represent the burgeoning fashion scenes in their respective cities, and give candid opinions about both its growth and uniqueness, and the challenges that they face.

Historically, the study of Fashion and dress has been decidedly Eurocentric, with a focus on the global North resulting in the “othering” of fashions from elsewhere, and despite more recent publications beginning to address this imbalance a divide still exists.

Although this exhibition may not directly reference the hegemonic underpinnings of fashion systems, it is successful in demonstrating to its visitors that contemporary African fashion is diverse and exciting enough to merit its own exhibition, in offering a new perspective from the voices of that continent and in going some way towards addressing the balance through visual language.

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British Asian Style: Fashion and Textiles/ Past and Present edited by Christopher Breward, Philip Crang and Rosemary Crill Reviewed by Katie Godman

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British Asian Style: Fashion and Textiles/ Past and Present was first published in 2010 by the V and A. This book predates The Fabric of India exhibition and the publication of Muslin by Sonia Ashmore, though comes after the museum’s publication of Textiles and Dress of Gujarat by Eiluned Edwards.

Considering the V and A’s  galleries heavily feature Asian art and textiles there is a relatively small amount published by them on this topic, however the publication of British Asian Style seeks to rectify this ‘This book is the first to consider the ways in which these intertwined (Asian and British) histories…have contributed to a vibrant and under-represented aspect of Britain’s cultural heritage and contemporary creative environment…we hope it inspires all those with an interest in a centuries old story of exchange, travel competition and creativity.’ (P.9)

The editors have chosen to examine these ‘intertwined histories’ with a diverse collection of essays, including photo-essays, focusing on the relationship of Asian (primarily Indian) and British fashions, textiles and culture, from the time of the British Raj to the modern day. The essays are written by a range of academics from fields of fashion, anthropology and cultural geography. The writers come from a mix of British and Asian backgrounds, and backing is provided by the Diasporas, Migration and Identity Programme as well as the Arts and Humanities council. An array of sources are used across the essays including interviews, entries into Bridging Arts’ British Sari Story project, photographs from the museum’s collection as well as fashion photography and paintings.

Aimed at the museum-going public, the book assumes the reader has knowledge of history, religion and social customs, as well as life in modern day, urban Britain and its subcultures. Since it was published by a British museum it’s aimed at people living in a post-colonial and increasingly multicultural society. Using fashion and textiles as a framing device it examines the relationship between Britain and Asia in a largely positive way, using examples of successful Asian fashion businesses as well as interviewing sources who treat cross-cultural borrowing or appropriation with humour or pleasure and have generally had positive responses to their Asian or mixed modes of dress.

The book is laid out in three sections: Textiles, Styles and Spaces. Textiles aims to ‘establish the material threads that have bound Britain to India and Pakistan’ (P.9). This is carried out rather neatly, with essays tracing the roots of the British trade with India in Chintz, through to Indian styles serving as an inspiration to the modern British high street and the British Sari Story Project.

In looking at the history of the two countries it glosses over the importance of dress in Gandhi’s protest movement. This was something The Fabric of India exhibition did examine. It also fails to mention as a result of the Industrial Revolution the British market was producing cloth and shawls in Indian styles on their own shores, thus damaging the Indian economy. What is focused on is the British bohemian enthusiasm with certain Indian crafts, demonstrating how these practises might have died out if not for this interest. This paints a rather rose tinted view of the history of British and Indian trade.

Styles is the largest section and contains seven essays, which examine fashion and how it has been adapted and appropriated by different groups, from western bohemians to modern day British Muslims. There are some essays which focus on men’s fashion, however the overall focus is women’s fashion as well as women’s religious dress. Apart from the photo essays the turban is overlooked, while veiling and modest dress is examined in detail, perhaps because it has become a hot topic in recent years.

Generally, the tone of the essays is positive, telling the reader how in the past Asian communities had to try and assimilate due to prejudice but now happily dress in styles reflective of their religion and cultures, many marrying elements of both British and Asian cultures as they feel they belong to both. No mention is made of the rise in Islamophobic attacks on women wearing hijabs or attempts to ban Islamic modes of dress, and the view that veiling is oppressive to women is not discussed.

The last section focuses on space; how Asian fashion and textiles has been curated and sold in the UK. Each essay uses a variety of sources from interviews to historical texts, the aim to ‘investigate the enduring presence of south Asian textiles in British shops and in the museum itself, reminding of the ubiquity of British culture.’ (P.9). By referencing high street stores and using modern photographs as well as charting the exhibition of Indian textiles in British museums the book demonstrates how closely intertwined the cultures are but also queries whether British culture has romanticised India.

The book’s wide range of essays means it skims the surface of a wide range of topics without delving too deep. It doesn’t draw many negative conclusions and overlooks modern racism, controversies surrounding Islamic dress, the negative effects of colonialism, and Gandhi’s movement, all of which could have formed interesting essays.

However, the introduction states that it wants to ‘inspire interest’ and by keeping a generally positive tone, and accompanying the text with plenty of colour pictures it certainly does this. Since it is published by a museum, part of its purpose is to encourage visitors to the museum, and considering it predates the hugely successful The Fabric of India exhibition, it can be assumed it was successful in doing this. This allowed further examination of Indian textiles and also looked at India’s relationship with Britain. With an upcoming exhibition next year focusing on another aspect of Britain and India’s cultural exchange (Lockwood Kipling: Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London) we can hopefully assume the V and A is keen to continue the discourse on Britain and Asia which it intended to ‘inspire’ six years ago with the publication of this book.

 

 

References

 

Breward, C., Crang, P. and Crill, R. eds., 2014, British Asian Style: Fashion and Textiles/ Past and Present, 5th Edition, London, V and A Publishing

 

Bryant, J., 2016, The William Morris of India, V&A Magazine, Autumn/Winter, p67-73

 

The Fabric of India, October 2015-January 2016, exhibition, The V and A Museum, London

 

Alam, F. 2005, We Must Move Beyond The Hijab, The Guardian, 29th November 2005, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2005/nov/29/highereducation.uk, 16th October 2016

 

Alibhai-Brown, Y. 2014, Refusing the Veil, London, Biteback Publishing

 

 

Shoes at the V&A: Take Two

A second take on the popular Shoes exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

By Hiroko Oriyama

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{Image  – V&A}

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, displays around 200 pairs of both women’s and men’s shoes from different countries around the world. The exhibition is curated by Helen Persson of the V&A’s Asia Department, and includes shoes from ancient Egypt to contemporary exclusive designer shoes. The purpose of the exhibition is to show us not a history of shoes, but power of shoes throughout history. It is organised thematically and divided into five sections: Transformation, Status, Seduction, Creation, and Obsession. Various types of shoes were selected for each section by considering what stories these shoes are telling us.

The exhibition shows that shoes are a representation of the wearer’s status or identity. Some shoes are extremely unpractical, not everyday shoes for everyday life. As a Japanese person, I highly recommend seeing the extremely high-heeled shoes worn by Japanese high-class prostitutes. You can see how they wore and walked in these shoes in the film ‘Yoshiwara enjo’ (directed by Hideo Gosha, 1987), screened on the ground floor of the exhibition. However, overall there is not enough visual imagery showing how the shoes were worn. Even though each pair of shoes has a written explanation of when, where or what types of shoes they are, it is not enough to understand how these are worn if the audience does not have specific knowledge. If they had included more paintings or photographs, it would have been more interesting, and helped the audience to understand more. Shoes themselves do not have power: they give the wearer power. So I would say, there should have been more concern about the wearer.

Of course, there are spatial limitations, and we can imagine how some shoes are worn. But it is necessary for others; for example, shoes for bound feet in China have an image next to them. But the photograph is not clear enough to understand how such extremely tiny shoes could have actually been worn. There are some paintings, photographs and films but I would say they are not enough for the purpose of the exhibition. Hence, considering the spatial limitations, I could say that there might be too many shoes for this exhibition.

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{Image – V&A}

Many shoes are selected from the contemporary period, and are from very exclusive and luxury brands such as Christian Louboutin. These shoes are a representation of contemporary women’s status. However, the display of too many exclusive designers shoes reminded me of the shoe section of department stores such as Selfridges. Though it is not a historical exhibition, it should display a more balanced selection of periods since the curators think that shoes have had great impact throughout history.

Overall, this exhibition has had success and attracted audiences by displaying many unique shoes. However, the purpose of this exhibition is not to entertain us but to encourage us to see the power of shoes. When it comes to this point, this exhibition should have been more concerned about their display methods, and a balance of historical periods.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the V&A is on until 31 January 2016. Click here for more information and booking.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the V&A

By Jessica Harpley

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{image – V&A}

Shoes: few items in our wardrobes provoke such frenzied desire and fervent collection. Fewer still can lay claim to our hearts, and money, in spite of questionable practicality and comfort. The V&A Museum’s latest fashion exhibition explores our 3,000 year-old relationship with shoes, using “extremes of footwear” to demonstrate their cultural significance, transformative capacity and construction. The exhibition’s title, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, encapsulates the duality of footwear in being objects of both beauty and discomfort, simultaneously empowering and restraining. Neon lights spell out the title upon arrival, bolstering the kinky notion of fetish implied by ‘pleasure and pain.’ This sensual theme extends throughout the lower, entry level of the two-tier exhibition; here, the dark environment creates a sense of the boudoir.

The exhibition is divided into five sections: ‘Transformation’, ‘Status’, and ‘Seduction’ on the lower-level present a cornucopia of footwear, using examples across time and space to demonstrate the ways in which people interact with footwear; ‘Creation’ and ‘Obsession’ on the upper-level concentrates on the manufacture and technology of footwear, and tells the stories of prolific shoe collectors. Here, the space is lighter and airy, feeling somewhat disconnected from the space below.

Undoubtedly, the lower-level is the main attraction with its creative display of ostentatious, and occasionally more humble, shoes. Avoiding the usual approach of a chronological or geographic narrative, the displays are admirable in their mixing of old and new, challenging the view that outlandish footwear is exclusive to modern fashions. The size and innate sculptural quality of shoes lend themselves well to display, allowing for a range of imaginative vignettes. Despite the abundance of footwear exhibited, the displays never feel cluttered, with each pair retaining prominence.

Displays contain one personal story, photograph or depiction in art pertaining to a particular pair of shoes; however more could have been done to put the shoes into bodily context. The exhibition struggles in acknowledging the reality of these shoes being worn; some were visually so far removed from what we would consider footwear it is difficult to envisage a person occupying them, or their overall affect within a complete ensemble.

The range of footwear exhibited is overwhelmingly female orientated, reminding us that the most ergonomically challenging, “extreme” footwear is reserved for women, who may have the luxury of seemingly limitless choice, but have to pay for it with discomfort. In mixing high-street and designer shoes, the exhibition strives for relatability, something made explicit in the Obsession section, where historical and designer collections sit with those of high-street shoes and sneakers. This insight into the psychology of avid consumption serves to balance the making and material cultures angle of the preceding sections. On the lower level, cultural stories feel unexplored in favour of aesthetic spectacle, socially and bodily divorcing the product from wearer. Unusually for a ‘fashion’ exhibition, the tone isn’t aspirational, but celebratory, with entertainment value managing to disguise the areas which lack rigour.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the V&A is on until 31 January 2016. Click here for more information and booking.