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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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

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