Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Costumes from the Great Gatsby Movie: Miuccia Prada & Catherine Martin

Miuccia Prada & Catherine Martin:
Dress Gatsby 

As the release date for The Great Gatsby approaches, the Prada store in Soho New York are exhibiting a selection of the costumes for the movie. I went there today with my fellow fashion historian friend Joanna, and we were in awe for the duration of our visit. Firstly, the costumes are styled perfectly and they are displayed on a staircase. You have the opportunity to walk amongst the pieces to really see the beautiful details and techniques close up. There is also a short clip with Catherine Martin, the costume designer explaining the design process and collaboration with Prada. The costumes are stunning and epitomise the 1920s silhouette but with a contemporary aesthetic. Some might argue that they aren't exactly historically accurate, but I appreciated the interpretation of 1920s dress through a current lens. They are on display at 575 Broadway until May 12th. I strongly encourage everyone to visit, as it is such a rare opportunity to see movie costumes in so much detail and you can look out for your favorite pieces when the movie comes out. But, for those who can't make it, I took (a lot) of photographs... enjoy!

(All photographs taken by myself - Please feel free to share, but credit)

Thursday, 25 April 2013

From Canvas to Costume: Painting at the Intersection of Theater and Film

From Canvas to Costume: Painting at the Intersection of Theater and Film 
A Panel Talk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art 
24th April 2013 - 6pm

This evening, myself and a few of my classmates went to the Met for a panel talk on costume design and its relationship with art, that was hosted by Tim Gunn and featured the following three great costume designers. The award-winning (and just generally fabulous) Janie Bryant, who is known for her work on Deadwood and of course Mad Men. Julie Taymor, the brilliant director and designer who worked on The Lion King and The Tempest and Catherine Zuber of South Pacific and The Light in the Piazza. The talk was very insightful not only for those interested in costume design and film but for the ways that these designers take inspiration from art and the history of dress in their work. Tim Gunn was hilarious and gave us many memorable one liners to add to such an esteemed panel of guests. For those of you that didn't make it, here's a summary of what the women had to say... 

Janie Bryant 
Credit: Stephen Perry from http://janiebryant.com/about/
Hearing Janie Bryant speak was a great experience, and it was a pleasure to hear about her inspirations and the story behind her success. Her work as the costume designer for Mad Men was frequently referred to during the evening. Tim Gunn mentioned the ways that Mad Men has had an influence on the way we dress, and the impact that costume design has had on the public because of it. Bryant mentioned that she studied art history and was also obsessed with the fabrics in the painting and decided that designing was what she wanted to do. It was clear that art has always been an important part of her life as well as a great source of information. 

Photo by Carin Baer from http://blogs.amctv.com
When the discussion of fashion not being seen as a worthy source of study or history, she remarked that to her fashion is an outward vision of how we feel on the inside, which surely makes it more than worthy. In regards to her design process on set, she usually starts with the script and understanding it then formulating the images of the characters. She then starts the costume research by looking at films that are relevant to the period and reading catalogues like Sears, J.C Penney and Montgomery Ward. She said that she finds catalogues to be of particular value as it gives the opportunity to see what people actually wore and purchased as opposed to couture which was only worn by the minority. I think that this is essential in any fashion history research and catalogues are a very underused research tool in determining what the majority of society were wearing. She also uses vintage photographs to see how the clothes were worn and looking out for details such as how the clothes wrinkled and collar sizes. Bryant also spoke about the importance of foundation garments in Mad Men and the use of longline bras, stockings and girdles in creating the silhouette of the period. When asked by a member of the audience how she picked her outfit for the evening (great question), she replied that she has always had costume anxiety and and changed three times before settling on a gorgeous printed H&M blouse (because it looked artsy), and bright ankle boots from her friend who designed them. 

Julie Taymor
Photo by Marco Grob from NY Mag
Hearing from Julie Taymor, who is both a director and a costume designer provided a different perspective. She explored the approach that she has to both of her roles, and it was great to see the creative process of costuming from these different roles. For her inspiration for The Lion King, she mentioned visiting the Met and looking at the Oceanic collections and masks and that she was glad that you can see all of these objects. After seeing these, she was inspired by the beading and interpreted these in the corsets and said how rewarding it was for the costume makers to be doing real and traditional techniques. Julie made frequent references to the phrase 'limitation is freedom' and that the limitations of clothing can give an artist the opportunity to be free. Such as a dancer wearing a corset that constricts them but it also gives them the chance to really show what they can do with limited movement. I found this to be very applicable and she spoke so eloquently on this subject. 

Photo by Disney from Jim Hill Media
Taymor mentioned that for her design process, finding the essence and metaphor of the character is where she starts. Also, she enjoys finding inspiration in classic paintings then adding a point of view to it. I found her thoughts on low budget productions, to be of particular interest. Gunn asked if this could be a limitation and she said that there is a certain thrill when you create something spectacular from such budgets. Taymor believes that the power of creating can be simplistic. When she mentioned how important visiting museums and galleries was, she spoke about the importance of dimensionality and space. Seeing a painting in a book or in print is not the same as seeing it in person. I found this to be particularly true when I presented my Madame X paper. She also mentioned that she is always fascinated by the scale of the paintings and this has even had an impact on the aspect ratio of her films. In deciding what to wear tonight, she opted for her usual uniform of a long skirt, sweater and boots for comfort and freedom and movement. 

Catherine Zuber
From Playbill Vault
We were told at the beginning of the event that Tim Gunn visits the Met at least once a week. Catherine later said, that she too is a frequent visitor. She is inspired by the details, energy and atmosphere surrounding the paintings. The emotional context is as important to her as the paintings being used as an informative source. Zuber talks about paintings and art as an investigation of visual information that is needed to tell the story. I too have found paintings to only be the beginning of a deep story that so much can be uncovered from. She starts her design process by researching the silhouette of the period, works of art and literature. 

Networks on Tour
I appreciated her mention of the different aspects of costume design and how the process changes depending on if there is more of a sociological or artistic approach. She compared studying every detail of a period to having more of an artistic expression that is rooted in history but elevated to another level. I feel that this was such a good way of articulating this ongoing discussion into historical accuracy in film and its relationship with artistic interpretation. Her advice was to keep your  imagination alive even if you're not working on a particular project, as walking through museums can always be inspirational. She gave an example of using an Egyptian color palette for a late 1940's production, and how unexpected it was to have found the palette in Egyptian art. Zuber also chose her outfit based on her usual day-to-day uniform of black, with heels and socks. She was particularly fond of her Gaultier jacket and revealed its beautiful painted lining. 

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Madame X - John Singer Sargent

Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) - John Singer Sargent
1883-1884, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I have had the honor to be able to research this beautiful painting, and presented my research to the rest of my 19th century costume class at The Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday. It was a very rewarding experience to present in front of the actual painting as opposed to showing a representation of it on a slideshow. I have been researching the painting for a while now but I'm not ready to say goodbye, so I thought I would share some of it.  The story behind the painting is as fascinating as the piece itself.  When the painting was exhibited in the 1884 Salon, it was ridiculed and critics condemned the portrait, sitter and artist. The original painting had one of the shoulder straps falling down over Madame Gautreau’s arm; this was seen as inappropriate as it implied that the dress wasn’t secure. The painting was also condemned for idolizing her as they believed it focused on her vanity, need for public display and desire to shock people with her artificial beauty. Sargent reworked the painting after the Salon and painted the straps in the vertical position that you can see above. 

Sargent in his studio with the portrait of Madame X, ca. 1884.
Smithsonian Archives of American Art

Sargent selected the black velvet and satin dress from Gautreau’s wardrobe and chose it as it stood out from her other pieces. This dress was much simpler than the other prevalent styles that were fashionable at the time. The designer of the dress was thought to be Félix Poussineau, whose designs boasted a very close-fitting silhouette. The dress may have been constructed with two separate pieces, a bodice or cuirasse and a slim skirt.  Evening bodices during this time were very form-fitting and shoulder straps or ribbons replaced sleeves. The skirt that she wears would have been kept straight at the front, with the extra width from the sides pulled to the back with multiple draperies over the foundation. She wears a black dress and black was seen as the color of mourning and the rituals surrounding mourning dress were strictly adhered to for fear of social exclusion. As black clothing was usually only seen for this purpose, wearing it outside of this context was seen as deviant and risqué and the associations that it has offer an insight into why the painting caused such a scandal. Fatal sexuality and the femme fatale were present themes in literature and art towards the end of the century. The rise in prostitution may have had an impact on this and influenced the association between love, death, beauty and disease in art. Black was strongly connected to the courting of death and was frequently referred to and linked with sex. Madame Gautreau’s black dress alluded to both of these, through the sensuality portrayed in her décolletage and the fallen strap and the daring darkness of her dress.

Portrait of Madame Gautreau, 1891.
Gustave Courtois

Gautreau was seen as a “professional beauty” – a woman who worked at her appearance and for a woman of her class this was frowned upon. Her skin was always as white as possible and she also wore lipstick, rouge and a mahogany pencil on her eyebrows. She added red to the tips of her ears as you can see here. To create her skin tone she used white rice powder and might have also used violet powder. This role as a “professional beauty” outraged critics when they saw the painting. Overuse of cosmetics was seen as a sign of female vice in a time when ideals of purity and natural beauty were still upheld. They also referred to her skin being corpse-like and looking more like the dead than the living. Edgar Allen Poe echoes the dichotomy between beauty and death and said “when it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” The whiteness of her skin is not the only aspect that showed links to death. The cosmetics that were used to create her pallor had many medical risks and the ingredients were said to have caused facial trembling, paralysis and even death. Madame Gautreau was suspected to have had lovers outside of her marriage the need for her to use heavy make-up may have been seen as her having a disfigurement underneath. With the escalating spread of diseases in the 19th century, unadorned skin was the only way to be sure of good health, hygiene and purity.

I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of the research process, and was truly fascinated by Madame Gautreau herself. She spent the rest of her life trying to reclaim the celebrity that she had before the painting and died before the painting's perception changed from one of scandal to that of a masterpiece. I would highly recommend reading Deborah Davis: Strapless for more information on the sitter and for background information on health and beauty during this period Mary Lynn Stewart: For Health and Beauty - Physical Culture for Frenchwomen, 1880s-1930s. I have an extensive bibliography so feel free to contact me if you're interested in this subject area. 


Monday, 11 February 2013

Failure to Blog, New York, Graduate School...

About 6 months ago, I was writing a blog post that I never completed. The reason being that I was leaving London for New York to start my Masters in Visual Culture: Costume Studies at New York University. When I finally got to New York whenever I sat down to blog, I realised that I had a copious amount of school work to do. So, you can see where my excuses for abandoning the blog are headed...

In the library researching cultural dress in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam

But, I am back. I just started my second semester and I'm back into my usual routine. The first semester of the program was fantastic. It's always a delight when you're with 15 other students who get very excited at Upper Paleolithic venus figures and 18th century fan language. Highlights from some of the fall courses include hand-sewing an apron for History of Textiles, visiting the wonderful collections at Cora Ginsburg for History of Costume and entering the wardrobe of a mistress for Literature and Methodology of Costume Studies. This semester I am taking History of Costume: 19th Century, History of Fashion Photography, History of Taste and Costume Conservation and Display so expect some exciting posts!

So... that was a brief update and my next post will be up soon! 

Thank you all for your continued support and patience. Email me for any questions about the course or have a look on the website xx

Monday, 16 July 2012

The Kimono

Tying the Obi c.1890
Burns Archive
There is a mysterious beauty that the kimono beholds. The stunning yet simple shape of the garment is the perfect vehicle for exotic, intricate and detailed fabrics to be embellished upon it. The evolution of kimono in Japan can be seen through the changing shape, meaning and functionality of the garment through different periods. 


Early 19th Century Japanese Kimono
Victoria & Albert Museum 
The Japanese kimono is a T shaped garment, with the fabric set in a length called a tan. The garment requires minimal cutting and consists of a vertical centre back seam that joins to two sections. A neckband is sewn around the front of the kimono with an open overlapping front. There isn't a shoulder seam and the kimono is usually worn with an obi. The obi is a sash and the width and fabric of which have changed throughout history. The obi was used to close the earlier kosode and the early obi was a rope-like cord or a narrow sash. By the 17th Century, there were various ways in which to tie the obi. These knots are called musubi and they have a more decorative than functional purpose for the more modern kimono. Taiko Musubi is one of the most popular knots, said to be named after the Tokyo bridge, as it has a shape reminiscent of a box. It is suitable for most occasions, as certain musubi should only be worn for formal occasions or with a certain colour palette or type of kimono. 
Taiko Musubi
The kimono was developed from the kosode. This was a plain white undergarment that had small sleeves. In the Muromachi Period (1392-1573), women stopped wearing the hakama with their kosode and the kosode then became ankle-length. Hakama are trousers that are either divided or undivided. As the kosode was now being 'seen' and no longer an undergarment it became desirable to have them in different designs. An obi then began to be used to close the kosode.  During the Edo Period, in the 17th Century the kosode had a softer drapery in new fabrics. The sleeves were also lengthened and the obi  became wider. 
Kimono are praised for their beauty and workmanship, hence why they demand such an expensive price. Much of the money that Geisha earn both past and present is spent on dress and cosmetics, as fine kimono, obi, undergarments and accessories have a very high price tag. Much of the Geisha's training is on dressing rituals, and a large portion of this is on the care and wear of the kimono. 
Kasode from early Edo period
Matsuzakaya Kimono Museum
Kimono also have identification properties and other meanings, which are important factors to consider when choosing a style. Young, unmarried women wear a version with a swing sleeve called a furisode, which has more detailed and complex patterns. It is also a formal garment and the musubi on the obi is usually a fukura-suzume, which is a knot that looks like a sparrow's spread wings and only worn with the furisode. The tomesode is worn by married women and only has a pattern at the bottom, it has short sleeves and not as much detail as others. There are two types of tomesode; the irotomesode usually has one colour and is the less formal option. The kurotomesode is usually black and the most formal and married women wear this for occasions such as their children's wedding. The komon is more of a casual style, with a repeat pattern that is worn everyday. 


Thursday, 21 June 2012

The Rise of The Chemise a la Reine

Marie Antoinette en Chemise by ÉlisabethVigée-Lebrun1783 
There have been a fair amount of garments in fashion history that have created many a public outcry and some salacious gossip. A great example of this is the Gaulle, also known as the Chemise a la Reine. My use of 'great' is not only because of its difference in appearance to other 18th Century silhouettes, but also for a few of the fashionable ladies who wore it. With Marie Antoinette, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire and Mary Robinson as fans, it is impossible for one to not fall in love with this diaphanous beauty of a dress. 

Portrait of Danish Princess
Louise Augusta by Jens Juel 1787

In the Summer of 1780, Marie Antoinette was frolicking in her gardens at the Petit Trianon. The château, situated near Versailles was originally built for Madame de Pompadour, but unfortunately she died before it was completed. It was then given as a gift to another mistress of Louis XV's, Madame du Barry. The château changed hands again and was given to Marie Antoinette. The young Queen was desperate to escape from the confines and strict regulations of Versailles, and Trianon became her sanctuary. For the ultimate relaxation, she decided to stop wearing her opulent court outfits and opted for something simpler. Rose Bertin decided to copy the muslin dresses worn by women in the French West Indies for this purpose. Marie Antoinette began to wear the white loose gown that was tied high on the waist with a large ribbon. The garment showed her romanticism of a simple life that she longed for, but also a life that she was chastised for. Her preference for the Gaulle was further immortalised by the above paintingThe painting by Marie Antoinette's chosen painter, shocked the public and was criticised for depicting the Queen in a public state of deshabille (undress). The painting was removed from the Royal Salon in favour of something more suitable and the gown became known as the Chemise a la Reine for its association with the Queen.  

Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire
Thomas Gainsborough 1787

Marie Antoinette also sent a few chemises to her aristocratic counterparts in England. In France, the garment was seen as disrespectful and carried negative connotations. The Chemise a la Reine was frowned upon as it did not adhere to strict court traditions and the muslin was imported, which was said to have insulted French manufacturers and provoked financial losses for them as it grew in popularity. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire was sent one by the Queen of France, and herself and Mary Robinson are seen as the ones who introduced and popularised the garment in Britain. Georgiana wore the garment to a ball and the chemise was praised in women's magazines afterwards. Mary Robinson also wore the Chemise a la Reine and it is believed that she wore it before Georgiana. Newspapers and magazines were fascinated by the steady adoption of the style and in November 1784, the Morning Herald wrote the following:

'Ladies of the first style adopt it, and gentlemen patronize it. The Chemise de la Reine, in which Mrs Robinson appeared at the Opera, is expected to become a favourite undress among the fashionable women, who are either by necessity or inclination put to their shifts, the ensuing winter!'

Madame Récamier by Francois Gérard 1802

There were still heavy debates surrounding the garment and not only for its association with Marie Antoinette. The Chemise a la Reine remained popular until the 1820s. It was usually made from simple white muslin and loosely fell from the high waist, that was emphasised by a coloured sash. The deep neckline was gathered with drawstring and the puffy sleeves held with ribbon. Stays weren't worn with this, and minimal undergarments such as thin skirts, cloth bodices or tight trousers were used. This is one of the only times that corsets weren't worn during the 18th and 19th Centuries. The chemise was previously a foundation garment worn under costumes; this was one of the issues surrounding its popularity as an outer garment. Although costumes at the European court were provocative with their low necklines and decolletage showing, the chemise was still seen as an undergarment by many in society. It liberated women from the confines of their tightly laced stays and offered more comfort due to the lack of panniers, corsets and wide hoops. It was also the garment that would ultimately shape the transition to a straighter and lighter silhouette. For me, the Chemise a la Reine, is such a simple and beautiful style and its fluidity is elegantly portrayed in portraiture. It gives the woman a natural appeal, one that looks comfortable and not staged and in a way fulfilling Marie Antoinette's original quest of feeling 'at home'.  

Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife Marie-Anne-Pierrette Paulze
Jacques-Louis David 1788

Monday, 18 June 2012

Imagining Fashion: Fashion in Fiction

The language of dress is arguably at its most prevalent in fiction. The use of fashion is an intrinsic tool in constructing and imagining the world in which the characters inhabit. Fashion is noted for its identity forming properties, and in literature it also shapes the identities of characters. The culture, place and period that the book is set in, is also further ingrained into our imagination through the character’s sartorial choices. Dress descriptions are of course the most telling, but often the lack of such or perception by others is just as revealing.

Film portrayals have shown how fashion in literature can be realised. As a result of this, the costume used in the film is at the forefront of our minds and this representation overtakes our perception of the same character in ‘fiction form’. As you read a book you become ensconced in the character’s world, and page-by-page you imagine what they would be like. This imagined image is different for everyone. 

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
 Lily Bart
-     The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton is set in America’s Gilded Age, a period of industry expansion and economic growth from the late 1860s to 1896. In cities such as New York, the wealthy got richer and showed it in ostentatious display. The wealthy and the poor were living side by side in the North. In the book, the attractive protagonist Lily Bart has a marked obsession with marriage and wealth and securing her place in society. After what she believed to be investments in stocks and shares, she begins to spend rather lavishly. She longs for extravagant parties and splendour but her increasing debt leaves her to fall into desperation and despair. Lily Bart believes that beauty and fashion are essential in the life that she wishes to pursue, and spends all her money on achieving this ideal. The House of Mirth does not have many descriptions of actual dress, but it is the impression of fashionable excess that enables the reader to enter the Gilded Age. Lily Bart remarks that “If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don't make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop--and if we can't keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership."

Key Scenes/ Themes 

Grand Central Station: The opening scene from the book takes place in Grand Central Station. Lawrence Selden notices the arrival of Lily Bart and describes her to the reader.'Selden paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart… Selden had never seen her more radiant. Her vivid head, relieved against the dull tints of the crowd, made her more conspicuous than in a ball-room, and under her dark hat and veil she regained the girlish smoothness, the purity of tint, that she was beginning to lose after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing.' This reveals Lily's appearance and is one of the only dress descriptions, but perfectly gives us the ability to form the beginning of her identity.

      Gilded Age: The extravagance of the parties at Bellomont highlight the place in society where Lily aspires to be and her obsession with materialism and dress. She would embark in games of bridge or chess so she could afford to buy dresses, 'once or twice of late she had won a large sum, and instead of keeping it against future losses, had spent it in dress or jewelry'. The opulence is described in a way that makes it understandable to see why Lily would want to be in this world, 'the seated throng, filling the immense room without undue crowding, presented a surface of rich tissues and jewelled shoulders in harmony with the festooned and gilded walls, and the flushed splendours of the Venetian ceiling.'
Fashionable excess and loss: At the end of the book, Lily goes through her belongings and thinks about her relationship with dress and the consequences it had on her finances. A very poignant scene, set in her boarding house a very different atmosphere to the glamour of Bellomont. This would also be the last moments of her life, 'for weeks past she had been too listless and indifferent to set her possessions in order, but now she began to examine systematically the contents of her drawers and cupboard. She had a few handsome dresses left--survivals of her last phase of splendour, on the Sabrina and in London--but when she had been obliged to part with her maid she had given the woman a generous share of her cast-off apparel. The remaining dresses, though they had lost their freshness, still kept the long unerring lines, the sweep and amplitude of the great artist's stroke, and as she spread them out on the bed the scenes in which they had been worn rose vividly before her. An association lurked in every fold: each fall of lace and gleam of embroidery was like a letter in the record of her past.' 

Breakfast At Tiffany by Truman Capote
Holly Golightly
-         The story of New York socialite, Holly Golightly who is a character of intrigue and mystery. Her waif-like demeanour and simple but elegant style, have given her style icon status both in fiction and on screen. For many, the character has transformed into Audrey Hepburn due to her role in the film adaptation. There lies the challenge… to remove this popular image and to go back to the book and imagine the ‘original’ character with her complexities in the book’s setting of the 1940s. Truman Capote introduced us to Holly Golightly, as a free-spirited girl looking for somewhere to feel truly at home. Her effortless appearance and layered personality give us the chance to create different visions of Holly.
Key Scenes/ Themes

      Holly’s Apartment: The setting for many great moments in the book, and the suitcases and clothes sprawled everywhere give us an indication of her character.  'She was never without dark glasses, she was always well groomed, there was a consequential good taste in the plainness of her clothes, the blues and grays and lack of luster that made her, herself, shine so....Holly was alone. She answered the door at once; in fact, she was on her way out -- white satin dancing pumps and quantities of perfume announced gala intentions.' One of my favourite quotes from the book is... 'it's like Tiffany's," she said. "Not that I give a hoot about jewelry. Diamonds, yes. But it's tacky to wear diamonds before you're forty; and even that's risky. They only look right on the really old girls. Maria Ouspenskaya. Wrinkles and bones, white hair and diamonds: I can't wait.
Mailbox area: Holly Golightly’s box is engraved with ‘Miss Holiday Golightly: Travelling.’ What more could define her spirit? The moment the narrator first saw her is a great one 'she was still on the stairs, now she reached the landing, and the ragbag colors of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino blond and yellow caught the hall light. It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a slim, cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks. Her mouth was large, her nose upturned. A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes. It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman. I thought her anywhere between sixteen and thirty; as it turned out, she was shy two months of her nineteenth birthday.'