Featured Student: Anushka Tay

Anushka Tay PortraitWhat is your background?
I have a Bachelors degree in performance costume (1st) and worked for several years in the theatre across a variety of roles: designing shows, making costumes, and working backstage. I am also a musician, so my background is essentially in storytelling, whether through clothing or music.

What made you decide to study MA Fashion Cultures?
Costume is a powerful medium because it conveys everything written and unwritten about a character onto a body; but it is often overlooked. I wanted to give more consideration to the conceptual and communicative powers of clothing, and discovered that Fashion Studies is a fast-growing subject. It’s an exciting field in academia, and I wanted to be part of it.

Is there a particular project you have enjoyed working on during the course?
I enjoyed learning about a vast array of social theory and philosophy in the first term, and the challenge of applying these complex intellectual theories it to fashion and clothing – so often deemed superficial and unimportant. I was also fortunate to be the first student to do the Erasmus exchange with Stockholm University, where I loved writing a paper on costumes in Hitchock’s films.

tippihedren-the-birds

What are you writing your dissertation on, and how did you decide upon this subject?
My dissertation researches the samfu suit (AKA ‘Chinese pyjamas’) during the mid-20th Century. I was keen to explore and apply post-colonial theory to fashion and dress history, in an attempt to ‘look back’ from the Orientalist gaze that I’ve been feeling quite fed up with. A literature search demonstrated a distinct lack of writing on this style of clothing; and even less has been written about the dress history of Chinese people living in diaspora. So I decided to fill a gap.

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I won the Costume Society’s Yarwood Award and the Pasold Textiles Research Grant, which funded a trip to Singapore and Hong Kong. There, I discovered the archive of a brilliant mid-20th Century Chinese women’s magazine called The Young Companion; and carried out oral history interviews as part of my research. I also discovered that my great-grandmother had really great clothes in the 1950s, which was quite surprising since she lived in a village surrounded by rubber plantations in rural Malaysia.

What’s next?
I’ve truly enjoyed studying MA Fashion Cultures, and am planning on continuing the academic route. I hope to research, write and teach, and would like to contribute towards the continued diversification of Fashion History.

Click here to read Anushka’s posts on Intangible

Find Anushka online…
anushkatay.co.uk
Blog: Dress Me Up, Drag Me Out
Twitter: @AnushkaTay
E-mail: byanushka[at]gmail.com

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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

Study Exchange with Stockholm University: Part II

By Anushka Tay

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Swedish designers at the Utopian Bodies exhibition, Liljevalchs, Stockholm February 2016

In Part I of this series on my Erasmus exchange whilst on MA Fashion Cultures, I discussed some of the academic differences between LCF and Stockholm. In this blog post, I dwell on some of the practical considerations of doing a study exchange. 

Finance
There’s no way around it: Stockholm is an expensive city, and if you’re hoping to do a study exchange, start saving now! As the exchange is organised via Erasmus, you’ll automatically be eligible for a grant from Erasmus+. This won’t be enough to cover your rent, but will go some way towards paying for food and local travel. Be aware that you don’t receive all the money upfront, so arrange your financial affairs so that you don’t run into cash-flow problems.

I also successfully applied for means-tested grants through UAL: the Access to Learning Fund and the Final Year Award. These took several months in total to apply for, so start the paperwork as early as you can. It’s a long-winded process, so I advise maintaining a positive relationship and regular e-mail contact with your advisor from the finance office whilst completing the application.

Accommodation
It is notoriously difficult to find accommodation in Stockholm; simply put, there is a lack of housing available on the rental market. If you’re considering doing this exchange in the coming academic year, I advise getting the application forms completed as soon as possible, so that you can apply for student housing via Stockholm University. This really is the best option not just socially but practically, as it is really difficult to find a room in Stockholm on your own. Contact the Erasmus co-ordinators for information regarding housing. If you’re told (as I was) that the university has run out of accommodation at the time of application, don’t worry – you are very likely to be offered last-minute accommodation as people tend to drop out.

Stockholm is a small city, and if you’re used to London commuting times, living outside of the city centre will be a breeze. I was unfortunately unable to get student accommodation from the university, but ended up feeling thankful to find anything at all. My (shoebox) room was 30 minutes to the city centre on the fringes of Zone A, and was only a minute from a national park. It’s even easier to find rooms that are further out (a 45-60 minute commute is not abnormal for London but far by Stockholm standards), where you are likely to have a larger and cheaper room.

Try Housing Anywhere and the Stockholm Facebook groups: Looking for flatshare, Lappis, Kungshamra, Erasmus Stockhholm.

Money
Sweden is a pro-card country, with many places even refusing to take cash. Setting up a Swedish bank account is not straightforward, and as as the study exchange is less than 6 months, it’s not really worth the hassle. I applied for a UK credit card which offered overseas spending at no extra cost; and opened another UK current account that allowed me to make cash withdrawals overseas via debit card with no surcharge. See Money Saving Expert for which banks are the best at the time.

Work
I didn’t manage to find a job whilst in Stockholm, but other students have managed to pick up language teaching and tutoring/child minding jobs. Be aware that this presents a whole new set of concerns though as officially you must register into the Swedish system and get a Personnummer (personal identity number), even as an EU citizen. This is notoriously bureaucratic, as in order to get a P-nummer you need a Swedish bank account and permanent Swedish address; whilst in order to get a Swedish bank account you need a P-nummer!

Language
Finally, rest assured that nearly all Swedes are multi-lingual, and you will be able to get around perfectly fine speaking English. The university’s websites usually have English language options, but these are quite clunky; you’ll do better just to use Google Translate, which happens automatically on the Chrome browser. Be aware that the most problems I have encountered with the language barrier has been at the library, when searching for English-language resources, as there are often fewer copies of texts in English. Whilst there is a selection of core texts in fashion studies, the library just does not have the extensive, arts-specific catalogues that are available to us at UAL. Nonetheless, we are in the fortunate position to be able to simultaneously use UAL’s extensive online databases. Thank goodness for e-resources!

Outside of school, I have met a few people (usually older Swedes, but not always) who only spoke Swedish, but this is fairly uncommon, especially when you consider how few Brits are bi-lingual! Beginner Swedish language courses are available at Stockholm University, and you can enrol for free. I recommend the class as a great way to meet people!

Study Exchange with Stockholm University: Part I

By Anushka Tay

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My snowy Stockholm campus

In the autumn, shortly after starting the MA Fashion Cultures course, we were given the opportunity to do an Erasmus exchange with Stockholm University. Although study exchanges are pretty common in the humanities, it’s less usual to find opportunities at art school universities. Whilst many of my classmates are international students that moved to London specifically to study at London College of Fashion, I’m a home student. So, I decided to take the plunge, trade in British rain for Swedish snow, and spend the spring semester studying in Stockholm.

This initiative was started by our current course leader, Dr Shaun Cole, but I’m the first student at LCF to go to Stockholm University; and similarly, no one from the MA Fashion Studies programme in Stockholm has yet gone to LCF. So, I was given this rather daunting task of setting the precedent for what will hopefully become strong links between students of both institutions.

Stockholm University is one of the few places in the world to offer a dedicated Masters programme dedicated to the academic study of fashion. As a more humanities- and science-based institution, however, exchange programmes across the whole university are common and very established. What I found exciting was the opportunity to choose from a selection of courses to study within the wider Institute of Media Studies, which the Fashion Studies Centre is part of. I took three options: two in Fashion Studies, and one in the Cinema Studies programme. I could have taken more courses related to film, journalism and media; but decided that fashion courses might be the most relevant. In hindsight, however, I would urge future students to consider taking a range of units, as this could feed into your research and study approach in a way that you didn’t expect.

Having now studied here for over two months, I’ve been taught by several different lecturers, including two PhD students. The courses are of course heavily influenced by the teachers’ own research topics and published work; so a true wealth of knowledge about Alfred Hitchcock was imparted by Jan Olsson during my film studies course in Hitchcock, in light of his recent book. Nonetheless, all courses have embraced the Swedish ‘democratic’ teaching method, whereby a formal lecture platform is eschewed in favour of a seminar format, and a huge mandatory reading list. The degree of informality differs with each teacher of course, but overall all staff have encouraged comment and discussion during classes. The trouble here is that the Swedish are famously reserved (even more than the British, it turns out!) and it has frequently been difficult to get into real debates. I’m not sure if absolutely everyone in Stockholm has this experience in their classes, but I’d advise future students to be aware of this and be prepared to talk a lot yourself!

As my study exchange nears its end, I’m simultaneously beginning preparation for the Masters project back at LCF. In the next part of this series on the exchange, I’ll discuss more practical considerations of moving abroad for four months.

A Tactile National Identity: Latvia’s Map in Mittens

By Anushka Tay

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Mittens Map of Latvia – Sena Klets, Riga, March 2016. Photo: Anushka Tay

To what extent can a place be experienced, understood or consumed through dress? I recently spent a day in Riga, Latvia, where I made sure to visit Sena Klets – the National Costume Centre. Nestled in the touristy heart of Riga’s Old Town, I was expecting it to be a museum of Latvian traditional dress; so was surprised to discover that it functioned equally as a display of folk costume, organised by region; and a tourist souvenir shop. I was previously aware of Latvia’s famed knitting traditions; but didn’t realise that the patterns were governed by location. The hand-made items on display were presumably created specifically for sale to tourists, and were priced to a reflect some consideration for the labour time (€54 for a pair of mittens). As is so common in tourism, national identity is presented as a commodity for consumption. However, in this case, what is also being sold is the concept of supporting cottage industries, and of promoting a country’s textile heritage.

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Hand-knitted colourwork mitterns – Sena Klets, Riga, March 2016. Photo: Anushka Tay

Is this yet another iteration of what Simona Reinach refers to as the ‘romantic nationalism of the past’?  Traditional dress, or folk costume, occupies a strange place within the discourses of fashion in today’s industrialised, increasingly globalised world. In academia, fashion is largely agreed to constitute the system of change, with the individual styles of clothing themselves irrelevant (Kawamura, 2006). The adoption of the Western fashion system has in many ways come to symbolise a marker of progress, and Reinach (2011) demonstrates how with the rise of more and more smaller fashion weeks around the world, the fashion industry is more than simply an arm of commerce, but has come to consecrate national identity and mark countries’ presence as a major player in the global economies. Skov (2011, p.149) further analyses the relationship between fashion designers and folk culture, whereby on the one hand there is ‘the common perception that folk culture is the opposite of fashion— rural, static, backward, and soaked in nationalism’ – yet ‘fashion…has had no qualms about incorporating all kinds of colorful elements from non-Western, including Russian, folk culture. The new demand is that designers engage with their national culture and dress tradition, but in such a way that it can be attractive to outsiders.’

Whilst the mittens and other items in the National Costume Centre weren’t presented as fashion items, I personally found it fascinating to see that colours and patterns often used as references in ‘folk style’ fashions were still being produced. Integral to their production and display was the notion that they were still being worn; a sense of national identity embedded in craftwork, and displayed in a strange contradiction of exhibit and commodity.

 

References:

Kawamura, Y. (2006) Fashion-ology: An Introduction to Fashion Studies. Oxford and New York: Berg

Reinach, S. S. (2011) National Identities and International Recognition” in Fashion Theory 15:2, pp.267-272

Skov, L. (2011) “Dreams of Small Nations in a Polycentric Fashion World” in Fashion Theory, 15:2 pp.137-156

The trouble with androgyny

By Anushka Tay

Marlene Dietrich

{ Marlene Dietrich – image source }

Understanding fashion as a social process suggests that if a fashion trend is to spread, it must capture and reflect the cultural zeitgeist; this includes our attitudes towards gender. 21st Century culture is moving towards the idea of gender as a wider spectrum, not a binary. In fashion, styles for men and women have grown closer together throughout the 20th Century as the cut of clothing and use of surface decoration bear more similarities between genders. The common acceptability of women in trousers, and the increasingly homogenised colours, has led to a widening of gender styles in fashion. This, alongside the increasing de-stigmatisation of men’s interest in fashion, may allow fashion to provide a basis for expressing the complexities of gender and sexuality. Using fashion to communicate our innermost personalities and broadest identities, unbound by societal binaries, seems to be the ideal manner of dressing in a society defined by equality (and tolerance). In this sense, adopting an androgynous look, through wearing either a mixture of gender-specific clothing or else unisex clothes, could be liberating. Arnold (2001, p.118) writes, ‘Unisex dress that disguises gender distinctions and presents a masquerade of equality for all, has been a recurring utopian dream.’ Avoiding assumptions and stereotypes associated with gender, androgyny could be used to offer choice: to dress in multiple ways, or one, or both.

However, in many ways, feminism’s struggle for gender equality has stressed the importance of adopting stereotypically masculine features, rather than championing both; this bias extends to works of queer theorists such as Halberstam’s Female Masculinity (1998). Oates-Indruchová (2003, p.48) criticises this common practice in gender studies: ‘These approaches work with the prevailing social and cultural assumption of the lesser value of the female/feminine in relation to the male/masculine, or show how the assumption operates.’ Even the concept of androgyny is not as neutral as it may at first seem. Williams (2003) studies the etymology of the words ‘hermaphrodite’ and ‘androgyne’, revealing that the Greek and Roman roots of both of these words open with the male reference (Hermes – the male god of virility; ‘aner’ meaning man), and are grammatically male. ‘Both words make strongly masculine first impressions, then, just where one would expect the second halves to redress the balance, revert to the masculine’ (Williams, 2003, p.127).

Fashion cannot reflect all the complexities of social life, and it would take concerted effort to break from convention. Even when fashion designers operate as artists, the system of change which defines fashion takes precedent; and styles cannot change if they are not accepted by people in society. Fashion is one tool amongst many which we may use as communication; however, we are far from living in a utopia where diversity is championed. We must return to Judith Butler’s concern for this heteronormative world (Butler, 1990 and 1993), where even diversity is coloured by the dominant ideology of whiteness and heterosexuality, and gender-neutral concepts such as androgyny still contain masculine undertones.

 

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References

Butler, J. (1990) Gender trouble. 2nd Edition. Reprint, New York and Oxford: Routledge, 2007.

Butler, J. (1993) Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of “sex”. New York and London: Routledge.

Arnold, R. (2001) Fashion, desire and anxiety: image and morality in the 20th century. London and New York: I.B. Tauris.

Halberstam, J. (1998) Female masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press.

Oates-Indruchová, L. (2003) ‘The ideology of the genderless sporting body: reflections on the Czech State-Socialist concept of physical culture’ in Segal, N., Taylor, L. and Cook, R. Indeterminate bodies. Hampshire: Palgrage Macmillan. pp.48-66.

Williams, C. D. (2003) ‘ “Sweet Hee-She-Coupled-One”: unspeakable hermaphrodites’ in in Segal, N., Taylor, L. and Cook, R. Indeterminate bodies. Hampshire: Palgrage Macmillan. pp.127-138

Freed of London – from the pointe shoe makers

By Anushka Tay

Freed Of London from Jack Flynn on Vimeo.

I’ve been involved in many ideological discussions surrounding garments with my class during this first term. These often follow on from our lectures, as we have considered vast (and often politicised!) topics in the Cultural and Social Theory unit from the dissemination of style, class barriers, economics and the fashion system. On a different note, we’ve learnt about garments and silhouettes of the past in the Fashion Histories unit, with an understanding of clothing as embedded in the culture of its time.

Today, it seems that the manufacturing of clothing has become incredibly polarised between mass and niche production. Surely everyone today has consumed ‘fast fashion’: high-street clothes at various levels of affordability which is made in overseas factories.  This hasn’t always been the case, and through reading Elizabeth Wilson’s Adorned in dreams: fashion and modernity (1985) and Christopher Breward’s Fashion (2003) I discovered the now-forgotten world of manufacturing within Western cities. Thanks to television period dramas, it’s not hard to envisage Victorian factories in Britain; but sweat shops also existed in New York and Los Angeles, as well as Paris.

Today, workrooms have survived in European cities by marketing themselves to the heritage and luxury sectors. They may also be incredibly specialist. As my background is in the theatre, my thoughts always immediately turn to the array of makers that I’ve met in the costume world in London. They may be predominantly working for performance, but their skills are on par with haute couture makers. Practitioners – and suppliers – are also highly specialised, often having long waiting lists. In my opinion, emblematic of the most niche category in garment-making are DM Buttons in Soho, who literally specialise in applying buttonholes, and will do so on a 17th Century historically accurate reproduction doublet for the Globe theatre, or for fashion students caring to make an appointment.

All this is a very long introduction to the above short film. Freed’s of London make and sell pointe shoes. As you can imagine, there are very few manufacturers of ballet shoes, and dancers are fiercely loyal to their preferred brand. The shoe wholly encases the foot, becoming moulded through sweat and perseverance. I had never really considered how pointe shoes were made before. Unlike other costume items, they always arrive at work looking so fresh and perfectly uniform, pink satin glowing in their special plastic packets. This is certainly emblematic of Hegelian alienation in practice: even as part of what I knew to be a completely bespoke costume, I just assumed that the shoes were assembled in anonymous factory-like conditions. In fact, there are wonderful stories to hear from the people who have made it their life’s work to make ballet shoes.