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.

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

 

 

Exploring evolving fur discourses through advertising

By Lindsay Parker

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Luxury, glamour, wealth, status, success, exclusivity; these are the words most commonly associated with fur; they conjure up the embedded cultural meanings that have been established through years of use, regulation and representation of the material. Though these meanings have been (and continue to be) challenged by anti-fur campaigners, with arguably some level of success, fur is still considered the ultimate luxury, unattainable to most and increasingly prevalent once again in the collections of luxury fashion brands.

However, as the industry has faced a backlash from anti-fur campaigners, the allure of glamour and luxury alone is no longer always a sufficient tool for the promotion of fur. In the 1990s, in the UK and US at least, the material began to be linked with unnecessary cruelty and out-dated notions of glamour and the industry had to alter conceptions whilst retaining the elements of its appeal which had been built through years of intertextual discourse.

One response has been the use of technology with new techniques used to disguise and enhance furs, and new colours, textures and forms of fur clothing developed, in some instances, to create even more expensive and exclusive products (For example, Fendi’s silver coated, 1 million Euro Coat).

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Fur brands have also updated their image through advertisements which aim to appeal to a younger demographic, referencing “highly energetic, totally trendy and gloriously glamourous fur” (Vogue September 2006) and highlighting technical developments. This appeal to youth can be seen as one of the key elements of furs resurgence in recent years, reaching out to those who have not grown up through the height of the anti-fur movement or have tired of the hard hitting and relentless campaigning by animal rights groups.

Increasing consumer awareness of a vast range of ethical and environmental issues has meant that, for many, issues surrounding what constitutes responsible and sustainable fashion are no longer black and white. This shift is reflected in the appearance of advertisements which promote fur as sustainable, natural and timeless, as opposed to wasteful fast fashion or environmentally damaging synthetic alternatives. For example, the Origin Assured “label me…..” campaign featured high profile designers such as Oscar de la Renta claiming that – “Buying Origin Assured furs removes a lot of questions for a customer. It allows her to buy fur with confidence.” the advertisements are designed to introduce the new label which claims to promote transparency and adhere to strict animal welfare standards” suggesting that real fur can be part of an ethical fashion wardrobe.

Reviewing advertisements past and present suggests that, no matter how established fur is as a sign, discourse on fur in fashion is subject to change to correspond with the ever altering wider social discourses which impact on the field of fashion. This means that advertisements must respond to these discourses, and more recently this has been through adapting existing meanings to appeal to consumers changing understanding of ethical and responsible fashion and by embracing new technologies to shake off unwanted associations with times gone by.

The fashion archive at Nordiska Museet, Stockholm

Pre-tied Regency cravat, made from silk satin

Academic studies of fashion are frequently theory-heavy, with texts such as Yuniya Kawamura’s Fashion-ology (2004) even going as far as to assert that fashion should not be about garments at all, being a sociological concept. But the clothes do matter: unlike in The Emperor’s New Clothes, we do not go about dressed in ideas alone (Andersen, 1837). In my opinion, fashion scholars shouldn’t forget about garments – and archives are a fantastic resource for accessing them.

The Royal Thermals

One of the courses during my study exchange at Stockholm University was a unit on material culture methodologies. We were taught a range of scholarly methods to best analyse an object, to discover how society has led to its making, and how it embodies its contemporary ideologies. A visit was organised to Nordiska Museet, where we met with two archivist-curators of women’s and men’s historical dress, and the archive conservationist. They had prepared a range of Regency era pieces from Sweden. We students worked in groups to analyse and speculate on the garments, before the archivists told us about the pieces in more detail – leading to a few surprise discoveries!

Regency dresses, for party and everyday

Regency clothing styles are surely very familiar to the British, thanks to the British affinity for period drama of the Jane Austen kind. It was therefore very interesting to see how these cuts and silhouettes were transported to, and translated within Sweden – adapted to cultural temperaments and local climate conditions. We saw a range of garments: delicate woollen thermal underwear for a queen, complete with lace crown motifs (in case she forgot her position? This was shortly after the French Revolution, after all!). A well-worn silk dress in an ikat weave, arsenic green with an inner boned bodice. A sky blue brocade ball gown, worn by a countess.

Scandinavian tailoring for cold countryside winters

My favourite piece was a woollen tail coat, very heavy and strong, lined in thick linen. It was warped and misshapen, obviously worn in winter snows, with sleeve linings taken from a different jacket, and with multiple pockets. The conclusion? It was worn by a fashionable farmer. Surprisingly stylish for work wear, this good-looking functionality is surely an early embodiment of Scandinavian cool.

Many thanks to Nordiska Museet for permission to take and share these photographs.

References
Andersen, H.C. (1837). The Emperor’s new clothes. Denmark: C.A. Reitzel

Kawamura, Y. (2004) Fashion-ology: an introduction to fashion studies. Oxford and New York: Berg

Nordiska Museet website

Dressing like a girl in the 1990s

by Siân Hunter

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Alicia Silverstone and Stacey Dash in Clueless, 1995 (source)

From knee socks to babydoll dresses, during the 1990s girly items of clothing made a resurgence. However, depending on the subculture to which the wearer belonged, these garments held differing meanings. For kinderwhores and Riot Grrrls, girliness was being reclaimed and subverted through aggressive styling and attitudes, while preppy girls aimed to prove that they could be taken seriously while retaining femininity.

Femininity and feminism

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‘Dishevelled kinderwhore’ (source)

The idea of femininity, and especially childlike femininity, has been a point of conflict between feminists — particularly between waves of feminism. Some second wave feminists argued for rejecting feminine fashion in favour of masculine dress (Hollows, 2000). They saw femininity as an obstacle to gender equality due to its associations with subservience and passivity. However, in a postfeminist social order, femininity is celebrated by women and reclaimed with an element of self-conscious fun. Embracing femininity, especially at its most childlike, expresses self-confidence in a woman’s gender identity.

Female musicians celebrated girlhood as a way of creating a female youth subculture, something that had previously been lacking in the male-dominated narrative of youth culture (Wald, 1998). Punk led the way with female inclusion: both genders felt similarly disillusioned with mainstream culture and wanted to express their anger against the status quo. Riot Grrrls took advantage of this increased visibility and created a new image — one of exaggerated girliness, which contrasted with their powerful music that raged against the patriarchy.

The preppy look

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(source)

The prevalence of girly fashion during the 1990s has been observed by scholars of media and communications including Alice Leppert (2014) — who wrote about the influence of films such as Clueless (1995)). It is important to note how the average teenage girl, as well as musicians and characters on screen, appropriated this trend for girly clothing. Whether it was the Riot Grrrl’s adoption of childlike femininity to critique misogyny or the preppy teens imitating Alicia Silverstone’s character Cher Horowitz in the movie Clueless (see Figure 5), girly fashion was a significant part of female culture in the 1990s (Leppert, 2014). This trend for cuteness, epitomised by Silverstone as Cher (see above): ‘a ditsy, scrambled Beverly Hills dream teen in imitation-Chanel junior-miss plaid suits, thigh socks and high-heeled Mary Janes’ (Schoemer, 1995: p54), was a reaction against the androgyny and drabness of grunge. With this well-defined aesthetic and prescribed set of garments, girls could own their own femininity and sexuality. Easy to imitate, the look swept America as malls began selling the signifiers of girlhood: Macy’s stocked Mary Janes, baby-doll dresses and knee socks, while Bloomingdale’s made Clueless required viewing for the buyers of their juniors department (ibid).

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Alicia Silverstone as Cher in Clueless, 1995 (source)

Although the items of clothing that are worn are similar — demure dresses and knee socks, for example — the styling of these garments worn by Riot Grrrls and preppy teenagers means that the messages created by the looks are radically different. Whereas Riot Grrrls adoption of childlike fashion was combined with a non-conformist attitude that was reflected in their music, preppy girls were less political and more aspirational in their dress. Preppy style is traditionally a celebration of intellect and academic achievement and adopting such a look suggests a dedication to success.
References
Clueless (1995) Directed by Amy Heckerling [Film]. Hollywood: Paramount Pictures

Hollows, J. (2000) Feminism, femininity and popular culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press

Leppert, A. (2014) ‘Can I please give you some advice? Clueless and the teen makeover’, Cinema Journal, 53 (3), p131-137

Schoemer, K., & Chang, Y. (1995). ‘The cult of cute’. Newsweek, 126(9), p54-57

Wald, G. (1998). ‘Just a Girl? Rock Music, Feminism, and the Cultural Construction of Female Youth’. Signs, 23(3), p585–610

The Parisian Orientalism of Paul Poiret

By Ioanna Karagiorgou

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Poiret’s Orientalist glamour – illustrated by George Barbier

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Poiret coats – illustrated by Georges Lepape

The Orient has long been a point of fascination for the Europeans. Despite the various different civilizations and cultures it hosts, for the Western eye it has always been one big cohesive mysterious and barbaric place where the imagination runs wild. Edward Said was one of the first scholars to put that theory into a homogenized discourse defining the concept of Orientalism as ‘a play of domination and fantasy; a European invention, a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences’ (Said 2003). By identifying the ‘’East’’ as the opposite of the ‘’West’’, Europeans created a sense of mental and cultural superiority over their colonies. As well as the geographical borders, they created imaginary ones that defined the colonized ‘’Other’’.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, certain constructed images of the Orient were created and disseminated through the arts and literature. This fascination of course didn’t leave fashion unaffected. Paul Poiret was the first couturier to relate fashion successfully to other arts. He picked up on Orientalism as a source of inspiration that had been a craze since the end of the 19th century, but reached its peak with the performances of the Ballet Russes in Paris in 1909. From 1907 until the First World War he introduced a great number of collections that consisted of Kimono coats, harem trousers, gowns with vivid colors and exotic patterns; all of them following a simpler and more natural line in total contrast with the strict lines that governed the Belle Époque period (Mendes, De la Hayes 2010).

His collaborations with skilled illustrators also played an important role by giving an extra allure to his designs. Photography of that time couldn’t capture the vivid colors of Poiret’s creations, so with the help of Georges Lepape, George Barbier, Paul Iribe, Leon Bakst and Erte – some of the most modern illustrators of that time – Poiret created illustrated albums as a means of advertisement (Steele 1998 ). So successful were the albums that the French editor Lucien Vogel suggested the idea for the monthly fashion magazine La Gazette du Bon Ton (White 1973).

Poiret’s fascination with the East didn’t stop at incorporating Eastern aesthetics in his designs, but went a step further: he also incorporated Orientalism into his lifestyle. Described as a highly theatrical figure (Troy, 2003), he adjusted the interior design of his couture house to be more ‘’exotic’’, and gave famous extravagant parties for the Parisian elite, employing Orientalism as a subject, with the most famous ‘’The Thousand and Second Night’’ ball in 1911.

The performances of the Ballets Russes continued to keep the Orientalism craze alive. Poiret and the Ballets Russes had a close relationship, and he created many of their costumes. After Scheherazade in 1910, the Ballets Russes became very widespread throughout Europe, particularly in France. Numerous plays followed that exploited exotic themes which expressed ‘the Russian idea of an Orient as seen by the French’ (Troy 2003). These plays were inspired by India, Russian folk, Hungarian folk German folk, Persia, China but all of them fell into the category of the Oriental ‘’Other’’. According to Schouvaloff (1997) that French construction of the Oriental ‘’Other’’ along with the highly original conception of every aspect of the Ballet Russes, helped to revitalize what was a long tradition, of French interest in the Orient.

References:

Mendes, V. De la Haye, A. (2010) Fashion since 1900. London: Thames & Hudson

Said, S (2003) Orientalism. London: Penguin Group

Schouvaloff, A. (1997) The Art of the Ballet Russes: the Serge Lifal Collection of theater design, costumes and paintings at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut. New Haven: Yale University Press in association with the Wadsworth Atheneum

Steele, V. (1998) Paris Fashion: a cultural history. Oxford: Berg

Troy, N. (2003) Couture Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press