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Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Uncategorized Yorkshire

Disobedient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates The Hepworth Wakefield

You could be forgiven for not knowing about Wakefield, but not about giving up on visiting one of the most visually stunning museums inYorkshire, if not the UK, just because it’s about two hours from London by train. That’s almost as much as it takes to cross London during rush hour, and the destination will yield far more surprising and satisfactory results. The gallery was created purposefully to house Barbara Hepworth’s gigantic, spectacular plaster casts, with an architecture opening up the building to the light. At the turn of a nondescript cluster of outlet stores, coming across this serene block moored in the midst of the river is like coming across a strange alien structure fallen out of the sky. It is all the more arresting in this particular context, after a long pilgrimage from the station, with a suitcase and 9 hours of travelling behind me. This is a space which has the rare quality of being as breath-taking on the inside as it is compelling on the inside, its functionality and openness making the works breathe and live within the space with complete effortlessness, far from being a sterile white cube. There is something unique about gazing upon the river below through a Hepworth as evening falls and the light changes. I fell in love at first sight. And as if that were not enough, Hepworth Wakefield then reunited me with a long-lost love – fashion and art curated together.

It’s not that I do not like fashion exhibitions or the complex and fascinating ways in which art history has informed the design, history and evolution of fashion. It’s purposefully because I do care deeply about fashion that I feel dissappointed when art-and-fashion juxtaposed together do not do each other justice. Art inspiring fashion is more than a Mondrian dress, just as fashion inspiring art is more than Jeff Koons’ “Fashion Loves Art” line with H&M (or his more high end collaboration with Vuitton only recently). None of these elements are bad in themselves, but they barely skim the surface of a entire range of possibilities and issues. These are the issues which the designer JW Anderson manages to sum up with a simple premise unfurling into a range of beautiful visual questions: the human body through 20th and 21st century  fashion, design and art. It reads like a love letter to the transformation, sublimation and subversion of bodies, beyond the beautiful or the aesthetic.

Installation shot of Disobedient Bodies JW Anderson curates The Hepworth Wakefield Photo Lewis Ronald Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield
Installation shot of Disodebient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates the Hepworth Wakefield. Photo Lewis Ronald. Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield

While ambitious, the exhibition never seems to work too hard for anyone’s approval. The prestigious selection has Henry Moore, Louise Bourgeois and Sarah Lucas alongside Rei Kawabuko (Comme des Garçons), Jean-Paul Gaultier and Christian Dior in strange, quiet conversations allowing you to work and question juxtapositions rather than face anything too literal. Design is not left out of the equation either, as Eileen Grey’s chair rests faces Jean Arp’s S’Elevant (Rising Up) sculpture expresses the fluidity and ambiguity of human bodies, and earthenware by Mo Jupp reacts to Gerrit Rietveld’s Zig Zag chair. It’s not always neccessary to search too far for answers sometimes. Henry Moore’s Reclining Nude irreverently leads to an iconic pointy-breasted bodice by Jean-Paul Gaultier. A cluster of Sarah Lucas’ eerie ragdolls draped on chairs is juxtaposed with JW Anderson’s trio of elongated knitwear jumpers (above). Softness and transparency, protective armour and movement form categories whose boundaries blur into each other. The text is limited to a simple booklet to allow the visitor to wander through rooms thinly delimitated by Anderson’s vintage fabrics, structuring the space. I usually take it upon myself to only read the booklet after visiting the exhibition, and it’s refreshing to feel as though the display can work as a free association of ideas around the body, without the explanatory text. Interestingly, the rooms are divided up in themes shown in the booklet like “disrupting classicism” and “casting skin. exposing and protecting” but these are not followed by lengthy room texts, simply regrouping a cluster of works and allowing for an extended labels for each. This was excellent in creating some kind of narrative thread without drowning the reader with heavy-handed thematics. There were a huge amount of creators I did not know and learnt from in the exhibition; the booklet still provides a stable resource for me to lean on. I learn from the same booklet that the architectural conception was meant to evoke “an intimate social gathering in someone’s home”. While I’d be absolutely terrified to discover a Hans Bellmer doll (above) in my home, I appreciate the sentiment. It’s all the more interesting to remove art from its stately pedestal and remove fashion from the runway in a display that craves intimacy rather than glamour. There is only one installation in the exhibition: JW Anderson’s 28 jumpers, creating an odd forest of soft, colourful knitwear to wander through.

Installation shot of Disobedient Bodies JW Anderson curates The Hepworth Wakefield Photo Lewis Ronald. Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield 7
Installation shot of Disobedient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates The Hepworth Wakefield. Photo: Lewis Ronald. Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield

Maybe the influx of names can sound a bit intimidating, but that feeling is quickly overtaken by curiosity. In a display of the unpredictable, inhibitions are dropped in favour of discovery. Rather than name-dropping, the exhibition allows us to encounter new names and see familiar works in a new light, like old friends talking about a seldom-talked aspect of themselves. This quote while encountering the fabric and steel work Untitled (1998) by Louise Bourgeois stood out for me:

“Clothes are about what you want to hide. Garments can hold memories and they become specific to a certain time and emotional connection.”  

This exhibition is the first that made me think sincerely about the idea of motion and stillness in looking at clothing – the sense that these are shells waiting for life to be breathed into them by the wearers, for a performance and attitude, and that every choice in tailoring and textile will modify and inform the body it covers. The desire to touch was strong, in order to grasp the power of textile to transform and enhance this sense of motion and create a particular vision of the body.  It was the first time that I stopped seeing fashion items in an exhibition as “exhibits”, and started seeing them as living, breathing entities, interacting with the world around them. In short, I started seeing them as works of art outside of the gallery space, meant to interact in motion. Motion is also at the forefront of Anderson’s concerns in portraying the human body within the exhibition, since a powerful range of videos complete the display and infuse it with particular purpose. Merce Cunningham’s Scenario from 1997 (below), shows the immense influence of the choreographer on modern art as well as fashion (his work was also shown in the recent Robert Rauschenberg retrospective at Tate Modern, as the two men collaborated extensively in terms of staging, clothing and set design).

It would have been interesting to see some of the fashion display items in motion via videos for instance. However, this would have made it a historical fashion exhibition, which was neither the case nor the intention. The exhibition did not neccessarily feel like a fashion history or an art history lesson, nor a design one…and that’s a good thing. Too much encompassed within the intimate space, and too much context weighing down on powerful objects would have overkill. This also has the added purposes of letting contemporary art, design and fashion dialogue peacefully, neither overpowing the other.

Installation shot of Disobedient Bodies JW Anderson curates The Hepworth Wakefield Photo Lewis Ronald Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield 2.jpg
Installation shot of Disobedient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates The Hepworth Wakefield. Photo: Lewis Ronald. Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield

More than an art-and-fashion exhibition, this is an exhibition with a sincere and powerful message in allowing for us to experience powerful and experimental interpretations of the human body. More than a learning experience it is a unique journey into being aware of the power of object and design to extend our own bodies and reflect them. Like Anderson’s interlocking jumpers, it draws connections in ways you would expect the least, tweaking and subverting expectations. I do feel that in more ways than one this exhibition did change a certain awareness I had about my own body and my relation to it, in its presence, transformation and absence. Being able to create this awareness and experience is the sign of an exhibition which will stay with you for a long time. After a long, physically demanding pilgrimage to a museum as unpredictable as it is beautiful, this experience seemed more than fitting.


Disobedient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates the Hepworth Wakefield is on till 18th June. Free entry 

Also in Wakefield, The Art House provides an excellent visit, with opportunities to discover emerging artists’ practices, and a Migration residency initiative on at the moment seeking to explore issues related to the refugee crisis. This coincides with Juan DelGado’s installation Altered Landscapes. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park is also not that far away via a bus or a car if you want to encounter a beautiful open-air gallery to experience sculpture outdoors, as well as discover the current Tony Cragg exhibition.  More culture and contemporary art in Yorkshire.

 

Categories
Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

Wedding Dresses 1775-2014 at the V&A

Many girls my age, in their early twenties, were quite dubious when I told them about the Wedding Dresses exhibition at the V&A. Cautious about how interesting it might be at the most, it certainly did not provoke a burst of excitement and enthusiasm about fashion centred around holy matrimony. This can be explained for various reason. The first is the reason why, when I arrived at the circular exhibition space layered onto two floors like a wedding cake, I found a mainly feminine audience but more specifically one filled with women in their thirties or beyond. Marriage is simply not something most students or graduates can really relate to anymore, too busy building their careers, social life…or simply enjoying a fresher take on relations and life with a significant someone…without eternal vows! The second reason is a valid point raised when a discussion arises on the evolution of the wedding dress: “it’s always going to be the traditional white dress…wouldn’t it all end up looking the same anyway?”

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Honiton lace wedding veil (detail), British, c.1850 c.1850 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Arguably, this would be the main shortcoming of any exhibition that based around the wedding dress, especially since this exhibition ranges from 1775 onwards, at the very moment when white or pastel tones start coming into fashion and disregard the brighter, bolder colours of old. Symbolic “purity” mingled with an iconic aesthetic appeal that has stuck with us ever since. Yet within this exhibition, this homogeneity also creates a single point of reference for a multiplicity of viewpoints, influences and changes.

The bottom half of the exhibition, ranging from the end of the 18th century to the 1960s, showcases the very beginning of this tradition cemented by Queen Victoria’s decision to wear all white at her wedding, her dress trimmed with British lace to support her country’s industry and thus launching the mainstream bridal fashion ever since (The last exhibition I reviewed, Making Colour, shows Queen Victoria fashionably sporting purple dresses with her family and influencing her subjects to do the same, leading me to believe that Queen Victoria was, unexpectedly, a great trendsetter). Such small details, revolving around economical and social change, focusing on a greater picture as well as an emotional and aesthetic understanding of the wedding ceremony, allowed the exhibition to take a step further than expected.

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This first half, with its muted lighting and powder blue and pink displays interspersed with quotes about nervous brides and excited grooms, is involved with the establishment of a recognisable tradition with its lace, wreaths and light tones, but also debunks quite a large amount of myths. For me, the greatest surprise was the relative sense of sobriety and economy based around the early wedding dresses: most of them were made to be worn again, sometimes involving simpler fabric that could be re-washed easily, as well as detachable sleeves so as to create a more fashionable and less modest outfit once the ceremony was over! The fact that church weddings were considered a lower-class option, since most upper-class members of society could choose – and pay – to wed wherever they wanted, was unknown to me. In a sense, the exhibition busies itself with easing the rigour of tradition while reinforcing it at the same time: I would have preferred to see less dresses from the 19th century but more early examples of wedding dresses before the tyranny of white set in.

Silk_brocade_gown_hat_and_shoes_1780._Image_reproduced_by_kind_permission_of_the_Olive_Matthews_Collection_Chertsey_Museum._Photograph_by_John_Chase
Silk brocade gown and petticoat, silk covered straw hat and silk satin shoes, 1780 Worn by Jane Bailey for her marriage to James Wickham 1780. Image reproduced by kind permission of the Olive Matthews Collection, Chertsey Museum. Photograph by John Chase.

Nevertheless, the transition into the 20th century gives a fascinating insight into the way in which weddings’ nature changes, adapting to the glitter of high society, allowing for extravagant dresses and their trains, made for the first time for a special, unique occaision. The glittery socialites of the 20s and early 30s could also celebrate in white now! Any sense of practicality rapidly flew out of the window for those brides whose wedding was broadcast on television for the record of the dress with the longest train: this was the case for the the bride Margaret Whigham, in her wedding regalia designed by Norman Hartnell.

Embroidered_silk_satin_wedding_dress_designed_by_Norman_Hartnell_1933_Given_and_worn_by_Margaret_Duchess_of_Argyll_cIllustrated_London_News_Ltd-Mary_Evans
Embroidered silk satin wedding dress designed by Norman Hartnell, 1933 Worn by Margaret Whigham for her marriage to Charles Sweeny, 1933. Given and worn by Margaret, Duchess of Argyll © Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans
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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The marketing of bridal dresses increases just as several brides and their seamstresses start experimenting with more daring, individual ways of expressing themselves, giving a stellar, socialite feel to the wedding ceremony. The way in which the wedding dress and its ceremony enmeshes itself with the political and social climate of its time culminates into an elegant and sober dress from WWII made of parachute fabric, below, in red. Both modest and modern, brave in its bold colour and cut perhaps due more to shortage of textile than anything else, it struck out to me as far more interesting than the traditional gauzy whiteness surrounding it. There again, possessing more information on the bride and the way in which the dress was made created a subtle but essential bond between the former bride, the dress and the viewer.

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As I climb the stairs, the top half opens up the space and dims the lighting for a spectacular panoramic view of modern and contemporary dresswear. Here, the visitor winds through the space in a less chronological way, with a broader overview of micro-influences and changes from one decade to the next. It feels as though a fashion magazine column on the top ten most glamorous celebrity wedding has come to life…which can have its shortcomings as well. In terms of presentation and amount of stunning dresses, many of them presented outside the usual glass cases, like a mock fashion runway, twisting and turning throughout the 60s till today.

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This is the rise of the fashion designer, where the name and brand start to supersede a more homogeneous sense of fashion to be adapted to everyday life by anonymous seamstresses. If anything the wedding dress has been more spectacular than ever before: as we tend to marry later in life and therefore possess a lot more means to fund a spectacular ceremony, the wedding gowns follow suit. White still dominates the scene…except for a few exceptions, such as Dita von Teese’s glamorous punk-rock purple  dress. 

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The dresses are beautifully presented and we are given a immensely complex insight into the way in which they have been tailored, as well as the various textures and experiments that have been undertaken. From a fashion historical point of view, and from the point of view of design, form meets content flawlessly as each decade’s state of mind is explored. From a social point of view…less so. No more parachute wedding dresses here. Yet without rising to that extreme, the sense of diversity is slightly lost. In a sense seeing all these high-fashion dresses creates a sense of greater distanciation than the relation felt with the dresses downstairs and their stories attached to anonymous lives. The interest is diverted from the dress and its design to the person wearing it. I want to focus on the way in which the dress is made and how it makes a tradition evolve, not a case of “which celebrity is wearing which designer” (guesses are open below*) Is this also something that is going to remain relevant to mainstream wedding tradition? Most of these celebrities can afford to step out of the norm but this is exactly like assessing 19th century fashion based solely on what the upper class would wear.

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Another slight disappointment: the last part was quite heteronormative. Recent laws in numerous countries allowing same-gender marriage for gay, lesbian and bisexual people have created a revolution in the way in which many people can express their love and lifelong commitment. Showing how this has influenced the wedding dress or costume, even while mainly focusing on lesbian and bisexual women and their womenswear, would have been a welcome eye-opener and an interesting way of seeing the way in which tradition is tailored to social change. Would their dresses match? Would one bride still want to wear a tux to twist tradition around or consider this as weirdly heteronormative in its own right? It would also have created a very interesting contrast with a few of the LGBTQA issues explored in their current exhibition, Disobedient Objects.

This exhibition’s journey through time gave me an informative and touchingly intimate take on the way the traditional marriage was born and how it evolved in relation to our political and social attitudes, making it far less superficial and purely religious than it first seemed. Yet this realization and complexity makes it even more obvious when it does cut short of something more in-depth. It sometimes devolved from an emotional and intimate journey into a visual overload that lost its clear message, especially when it brought royalty and celebrities into the picture. I don’t need an exhibition to coo over how pretty *Kate Moss’ dress is, however true that fact may be: I need to know how it fits into a larger picture regarding marriage today and how we feel about it.

Claire Mead

W edding Dress, 1775-2014 at the V&A, until the 15th of March 2015.

 

Categories
Exhibition review Paris

Paris 1900 at the Petit Palais

There is talk of a recent trend concerning Paris and its Chinese tourists, whose relation may become rocky. Travelling to the capital city with an ideal image of the City of Love in their minds (with Hollywood films and perfume adverts as the first culprits), they are often disillusioned and upset by the gritty reality that they faces upon arrival. Filthy subways, unkempt streets, rude waiters and grumpy Parisians abound in this fairytale gone wrong, according to this captivating article by The Business of Fashion.

I am probably a grumpy Parisian at heart: I was initially disgruntled by the fact that a living, active city was expected to keep itself as pristine and glossy as a Vogue photoshoot for tourists who, sometimes, do not bother with basic French phrases…or manners. Additionally, we would also like clean subways and pristine customer service to justify the price of a 4 euro espresso!

However this trend may not be that new. The tension between the naïve visitor and the seasoned Parisian, the Paris of dreams and the messy Paris of everyday life made me think of a recent exhibition. Indeed, Paris 1900 at the Petit Palais has both fed upon this dreamlike vision of Paris and challenged it in its own subtle ways.

The city is quite sleepy in terms of new art exhibitions for now. Many galleries are still shut and most museums are waiting for everyone to return from holidays before launching their new exhibitions in September. Despite the fact that Paris 1900 is now over, I wanted to reflect upon it, and return to Paris more than one century ago, at a turning point in terms of history, social change and entertainment.

EXPOSITION UNIVERSELLE , PALAIS DE L'OPTIQUE, LA GRANDE LUNETTE DE 1900
Affiche de l’Exposition Universelle, Palais de l’optique, 1900. © Paris, Musée Carnavalet/ Roger-Viollet

Paris 1900 promised a “Ville de Spectacle” and this is exactly what I experienced, in a format somewhere between an art exhibition and a documentary. 1900 was both a pivotal year of the Belle Époque, the symbol of a last decade of prosperity before WWI and the year of the “Exposition Universelle” of Paris, or Universal Exposition. This was the event of the year, following into the footsteps of its Universal Exposition of 1889 and countless other Expos in the past decades in London, New York and Chicago. The aim of these expositions was to showcase the international achievements of the past decades in terms of science, industrial innovation, art and culture. In other terms, it was a huge opportunity for friendly rivalry between countries and unbridled showing off for the host city. Paris therefore transformed itself along the riverbanks of the Seine to welcome approximately 50 million visitors. Although most of the pavilions and adornments were temporary, a few of them still influence the Parisian landscape including the Eiffel Tower and the Petit Palais itself.

A general introduction to the Universal Exposition showed a flurry of preparatory sketches, blueprints, posters and paintings, where the diversity of objects and exhibits created a particular atmosphere. The unpredictable and the eccentric accompanied this international crisscrossing of cultures, making the city a large parade both for its tourists and its inhabitants. A beautiful fresco by Alfons Mucha was displayed overhead, right next to an authentic Metro gateway, in the typical Art Nouveau style that pervaded the entire Expo.

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Binet, Projet pour la Porte monumentale de l’Exposition universelle de 1900, 1898. © Cl. Musées de Sens – E. Berry

Without selection or elitism, I was given an overview of the entire bustle and pomp around the exhibition in its most splendid and kitsch undertones. Most of the exhibition pavilions for each country and the different “palaces” built to welcome scientific or artistic displays were meant to impress and entertain for a while which allowed all kind of extravagances. As a shaky black and white footage from the Frères Lumière showed, the view along the Seine was ridiculously spectacular. So were the filmed reactions of Parisians sampling some moving sidewalks for the very first time. There was something moving about their excitement that created a sharp contrast with the utterly nonplussed use of moving platforms in the Parisian subway today…

The attention to detail, scenography and the steps every visitor undertakes through the exhibition was striking from the very beginning. The first room was constructed as a large airy space with archways that indeed gave the impression of an old fashioned exhibition space. Through the corridors leading to each new section, a film of Parisians going about their everyday lives was projected and on the other side, a mirror allowed visitors to literally “mirror” their experiences and those of their French, 20th century counterparts. It was truly this aspect and this sense of an intimate, ordinary vision of the Parisian in 1900 that created the exhibition’s strength.

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Emile Gallé, Vase cattleya fait pour Charles Lebeau, 1900. © Collection du musée de Boulogne-sur-mer /photo Philippe Beurtheret

The Art Nouveau section, teeming with sculpture, textiles and furniture was full of surprises and hidden gems – such as Sarah Bernhardt’s apparent love of sculptures depicting the seaweed, shells and driftwood she would pick up on the beach! I couldn’t help but think of the slight scorn that celebrities experience when they try to reconvert themselves into art and attract mixed reviews. With a mix of art, design and decoration, with tapestries shown next to wallpaper, and busts cohabitating with combs, a true sense of the full aesthetic emerges here, the first sense of modern design that does not limit itself to a single category. Is it difficult to limit Art Nouveau to one single room? Yes, but this exhibition achieved it without leaving anyone too frustrated.

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Paul Cézanne, Ambroise Vollard, 1899. Huile sur toile, 100 x 81 cm © Paris, Petit Palais / Roger-Viollet

This perhaps had something to do with the next room, which managed to reconstruct the content and atmosphere of one of the famed Artists’ Salons, where all of Paris – or those who could afford to in terms of time or money – would come and admire or violently criticize exhibiting artists. The idea of using the same format as a Salon, with a hanging system covering all of the walls from top to bottom was bad at the time, making some paintings hard to observe, let alone appreciate. The adaptation 114 years later was not any more successful in terms of visibility! Yet, with a small room dedicated to Rodin sculptures, and a late Monet facing Cézanne’s portrait of his friend and art dealer Vollard, a rich and comprehensive immersion back into the artistic scene of 1900 was achieved. This section definitely chose to show a realistic portrayal of the range of artists at the time, showcasing not only those whose names and images are still memorable for us, but also more significantly those who were forgotten by most people, lurking in small museums or thesis footnotes. This was mostly relevant in showing the amount of overwhelming choice that the audience had in terms of painters…and the fact that while some could be passing trends, uncovered gems could remain undiscovered for a century or so.

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Jean Béraud, Parisienne, place de la Concorde, vers 1890. Huile sur bois, 35 x 26,5 cm © Paris, Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet

As stereotypical as it sounds, the Parisian experience could not be narrated without the mention of fashion…and this ‘mention’ manifested itself in a lavish collection of clothes from the period, many of which come from the prestigious Musée Galliera. I was skeptical about the vision that this section would give about fashion overall, imagining that it would remain with the luxurious silhouettes and froufrous of the Belle Epoque’s high-class Parisienne, coquettishly flashing her ankles at her beau on a boulevard. Yet I was proven wrong. While ball dresses and tea gowns dominated the darkened room with their lace and satin, reflecting the fashion plates and caricatures of their time, the outfits of working class women were shown with just as much importance, showing their lasting influence on practical womenswear from the early 20th century onwards. The “midinette” – the young working class woman whose lunch break was at midday – captured a collective imagination that resides somewhere between a picturesque Parisian fantasy and its gritter reality outside of the limelight. As unimportant as the hardworking and coquettish midinette would appear to her contemporaries, she spoke to me far more than the idle rich lady in a lace tea gown could. While Belle Époque fanciness was remembered far more in terms of history and depiction of an era, her legacy continued as many women’s main fashion concern now resides in what they will wear at work rather than the next gala (are these the contemporary midinettes?)

LA MIDINETTE
Chahine, La Midinette, 1903., Vernis mou, eau-forte et pointe sèche sur papier Japon, 46,7 x 25,7 cm © Paris, Petit Palais / Roger-Viollet

Outside the limelight and afterhours is where a more nocturnal, risqué Paris reveals itself, in a dark blue room and intimate fragmented corridors. This was the part I was not expecting, definitely the most fun and teasingly scandalous: the nightlife of Paris, where gentlemen and women alike basked in fame and favours as soft erotica in sepia photographs started to circulate. The demi-mondaines, renown as comediennes and ballet dancers as well as ballroom celebrities, captured in photographs and written about weekly, are perhaps the first testimonies of celebrity tabloid and paparazzi culture. This was also the perfect time to witness footage of the first ever filmed strip-tease. ‘The Evening of the Bride’, starring a cheerful stripper and bumbling husband on their first night is so quaint and humorous it was almost heart-warming…and extremely instructive concerning Belle Époque undergarments. I wonder what the mockingly candid performer would think of the Crazy Horse. Would she faint in her many-layered undergarments? I am not so sure. We always seem to portray our turn of the century figures as far more rigid than they are!

Marcelle Lender Dancing the Bolero in 'Chilperic', 1895 (oil on canvas)
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Marcelle Lender dansant le boléro dans Chilpéric, 1895-1896. Huile sur toile, 145 x 149 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington (U.S.A.), 190.127.1. Don Betsey Cushing Whitney, 1990. © Bridgeman Giraudon

The theatre section seems predictable in its portrayal of the shows and entertainment at the time, between high-brow tragedies and cabarets, but subtle and powerful in is way of showing 1900 as a crossroads between a certain type of leisure and the arrival of cinema and photography, surprisingly shunned by the Exposition’s art exhibits. A lot was lost, much more was gained, and most of the trends, tastes and leisure of the “Ville-Spectacle” created a new swerve towards the type of entertainment we know today, through cinema and stars but also through opening up of media and entertainment to a larger portions of the population.

The Exposition Universelle is the main theme of this entire exhibition, strongest in the first room then diluting itself in the rest of the visit to let other issues speak out, creating a cohabitation between the desire to create a spectacular city for its visitors and the natural ebb and flow of taste and aesthetics among Parisians. In very much the same way, Paris today is constantly torn between the regulation of its touristic, glittering side and its other freefalling, improvised culture, often unappealing to those that were expecting something shinier and different. We enter thinking that the exhibition is going to be about Paris in 1900 but it turns out being far more about the Parisians of 1900, their experiences, aspirations and shortcomings in terms of culture and life. I am not certain I can leave any parting advice about discovering this Parisian’s Paris in more contemporary times. However, perhaps dropping the guidebook and finding a Parisian is a good start. If you ask politely for recommendations in clumsy French and sympathize with us about the terrible metro service, I promise most of us won’t bite.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories
Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier at the Barbican Centre

His name is spelt out in a bright neon sign as I arrive in the dark and spacious exhibition space at the Barbican Centre…a name that is a fashion trademark in itself, and a promise of extravagance, diversity and originality. Jean-Paul Gaultier possesses a unique legacy within the fashion world, born from a spirit that always seems to think out of the box. This immense collection of clothes arranged in terms of influences and inspirations over two floors, as well as the way in which they are presented, is a direct testimony to this attitude.

Gender ambiguity, sexuality and feminine empowerment, cultural diversity and futuristic designs…It would seem hard to fetter Gaultier within a single show. Yet this retrospective is one of the most daring and insightful fashion exhibitions I have seen this year.

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Jean-Paul Gaultier’s world explores places and ideas that transcend fashion inspiration and delve into all walks of life. In fact, the most notably aspect of his fashion, reflected throughout the exhibition, is his distinct desire to go beyond it and reach out to a world of stark differences, irreverence and anomality, celebrating it rather than sanitizing it or elevating it to a catwalk ideal. The gallery of his lifetime muses, models and inspirations surpasses by far that of vestimentary concepts and ideas such as the navy jumper, the punk movement or the Virgin Mary.

I think that curating fashion and historical costume is extremely difficult to acheive in an interesting and captivating way, however striking the content is. There are an immense number of constraints that must be taken into account, such as lighting, protection and encasing. There will most often be mannequins which can also give a ‘shop window’ feel to the display and make it feel kitschy. However this exhibition seemed to embrace the kitsch and dared to explore new ways to make the clothing displays seem more alive and interactive, giving it a theatrical and performative flair.

The exhibition plays with the idea of the fashion exhibit, ever-increasing and glamourous but always quite difficult to change around. The Gaultier’s exhibition resides somewhere between a shop display and a contemporary art performance, with models going from standing positions to sitting and reclining. On the ground floor, all of them invariably have a filmed model’s face projected upon the mannquin’s face, in consant, looped motion, either blinking or talking. Even Gaultier himself gets his own talking mannequin as his recorded voice welcomes us into the exhibition.

IMG_2120It is more than a bit unsettling to be surrounded by a dozen immobile mannequins with moving blinking faces or lips reciting poems or freetalk that has a performance art quality to it.This installation qualiy has been created and staged by Denis Marleau and Stéphanie Jasmin from UBU/Compagnie de Création de Montréal, while Jolicoeur International of Québec designed the mannequins themselves. without this unique craftsmanship, the clothes would not have been highlighted with the excentric and fanciful nature that best suits them.

IMG_2129In the first part of the exhibition, we are introduced to Gaultier’s marine collection, taking a classic French garment and giving it his own modern twist, followed by dresses inspired by Baroque Catholic iconography of the Virgin Mary with a Gothic, elegantly dark touch; the models’ ethereal eyes seem to follow me around under the blue light, like an echo of a powerful presence on the catwalk frozen into place.

But not all of them remain immobile. As I walk into the larger space, a catwalk-like installation allowed the models to rotate while we sit into seats on the side, as though replacing the designers and fashion magazine editors in a real fashion show. Shapes, colours and texture vary yet the same spirit of extravagance and elegance remains, distilling itself into the rest of the display that shows Gaultier’s strong punk-rock influences, from his trips to London and inspiration from marginal counter-cultures, without sugar-coating or side-stepping them so that they could fit into a high-fashion ideal. They are complemented by amazing punk headresses that are part of the series of wigs creates for all the mannequins by Odile Gilbert. There is no particular chronology to these; designs from the 70s and 80s merge with present-day creations, while remaining in the same spirit.

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In a sense, it is difficult to establish a chronology and grasp quite how revolutionary Gaultier was being at the time, because we now fully expect haute couture to create this spirit of provocation and of the extraordinary on the catwalk. There is a definite hommage through the predominance of punk in the largest space to both London and street style, rearranged in a theatrical fashion that sets the tone in its playful title: Punk Cancan.  For the most part these are not organized in terms of different genres so much as ideas such as androgynity, unconventional beauty, stars…inspired either by his muses, people he worked for or models. IMG_2179

Enter The Muses, a sprawling collection of rooms under a thematic that is as eclectic in inspirations than in creations. Thus we find in one room Madonna and in the other Kylie Minogue, with the dresses that defined the power, sexuality and feminity that they wanted to convey on-stage. In another, we find again the likes of Dita von Teese, Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss. The exhibition has a definite stardom quality to it, emphasized by a series of celebrity portraits and extracts from concerts. This is only highlighted by the presence of the photographers that Gaultier worked with as well, such as Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman or David LaChapelle.

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This fun celebrity aspect is not neccessarily new but I appreciate greatly the way in which it mingled very known names to the names of models and muses that are not neccessarily known to the general public, part of Gaultier’s search for an unconventional beauty. One of the first to embrace a body and gender diversity that is still looked for and sometimes lacking today! Through the photos and video footage of catwalks surrounding the clothes, the attitude of his models, nonchalant yet defiant, seem crystallized through a particular footage of a 1984 catwalk with a model sporting a suit and long tailored skirt for his “And God Created Man” collection. This allegedly caused Vogue editors to rise and leave at once, followed by Marie-Claire and Elle…much to the glee of Gaultier who said to The Face magazine a few years later, “I was slated by the French press for designing clothes for hairdressers and homosexuals!”

Provocation led to scandal yet also brought along popularity and a taste for the atypical. Amanda Cazalet and Tanel Bedrossiantz’s androgynity contrasted with the distinctive look and strong personality of Farida Khelfa, with her long bushy hair and tall figure. A softer, more intimate atmosphere is explored through The Boudoir, where Falbalas, a huge inspiration for Gaultier, plays on an old set within a dark and soft array of corsetry and lingerie. In full display presides his iconic teddy bear with an (i)conic bra attached to its furry breast – an addition made by the young Jean-Paul in a house where, raised by his grandmother, he grew up aware of a feminine strength that found its way into his work, mingling elegance with empowerment. Secrecy and sensuality here are not equated with submissiveness.

IMG_2245From femininity in the boudoir we go back to Gaultier’s exuberance and the way in which it encompassed not ony the catwalk but also television, with his participation on Eurotrash, numerous parodies and artistic involvement within pays and films, amongst which The Fifth Element remains a masterpiece of kistchy science-fiction. Punk, gender subversion and the boudoir: is it all too much? Yes…but “too much” is very much Gaultier. This exhibition pulled off an all-encompassing view of his work that focused on its eclectic and contrasting nature, without homogenisation or concessions. It managed to stay true to the vision of Gaultier in the documentation of his work and vision, complete with sketches, photographs and footage to complement the presentation of the clothes. Yet it still possessed its own artistic identity through a clever layout on two floors and the innovative work on the mannequins. The exhibition’s travelling success around the world will continue with its arrival in Paris next year at the Grand Palais and I look forward to another glimpse into a unique world.

The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier from the Sidewalk to the Catwalk at the Barbican Centre – 9th April to 25th August 2014

Categories
Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

The Glamour of Italian Fashion, 1945-2014 at the V&A (part 2)

In my first part on the exhibition The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014 at the V&A it was neccessary to set the scene for postwar Italy: impoverished, the funding it received through the Marshall Plan for regional industries provided high quality material that could fuel a fashion industry about to break through onto the international scene. Following Giorgini’s efforts to showcase the best of Italian production in the 50s, a potent market was found in North America for exquisite and hand-sewn pieces strengthened by a blend of quality and tradition. The 60s saw the emergence of a cultural fascination with Italy that went hand in hand with its fashion, creating an attitude and attractiveness that only grew throughout the years.

So far the main concern had been the creation of the “perfect outfit” – made for a maker’s loyal and exacting clients, every detail curtailed to his or her desire. Yet the late 60s and early 70s called for a new approach. Just as Florence and Rome were being replaced by Milan as the new capital of Italian fashion, ready-to-wear fashion was on the rise, where the concern was not so much the perfect outfit, but the perfect “style”.

On that note, the exhibition leads us seamlessly into this second part, where the outfits on display are now almost all left unprotected by glass; this allows for more observation of the textures but is also intentionally reminiscent of shop display rather than a traditional  museum collection.

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Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Indeed, proudly displayed at the entrance of the room, Elio Fiorucci and Walter Albini have become the epitome of the new designer that have embraced the ready-to-wear market branching out into clothes stores. They eclipse the traditional dressmaker with the more modern notion of “Lo Stilista”: the designer, stylist and mediator in terms of brand image and clothing. This new creator is concerned as much with the marketing image and wide-range accessibility of his products…while retaining an impeccable quality in his materials, as well as a newfound inventivity. The motto of Ferregamo mentioned at some point encapsulates this attitude: “Handmade shoes by mass production.”

This is perfectly on par with the marketing campaign “Made in Italy” that sought to increase the appeal of Italian fashion abroad. While Elio Fiorucci was definitely concerned with the branding aspect of his work, Albini, trained as an illustrator, uses his skills to produce elegant sketches that search for this sense of style and expression. Yet there is also a stronger focus, as we evoved through the display, on a more concise exploration of fashion’s relation to italian production. A video displays the regions that provide the industry with silk (Como), wool (Biella) and leather (Tuscany). The slightly dry and advert-like feel of the small video is toned down by the garments displayed on rows either side in themes corresponding to the textiles used, from Missoni’s knitwear to Karl Lagerfeld’s multicolour mink or Max Mara’s camel coat.

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Women’s knitted ensemble 1972 Missoni 528 KB Missoni / Fashion in Motion at the V&A, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The last part is one that concerns itself not only with fashion but essentially with the way it is channelled throughout modern media and deified.Lo Silisto here becomes, in the year 2014, the “designer”, whose world and its superstar status is defined as such by Anne Piaggi: “a secret society, made up of pioneers, a few inventors and a few poets. They are the new phenomenon and the new elite.”

The room is large and dark, projecting a sense of covert holiness as a large dome-like structure stretches overhead and a screen shows a whirl of videos in which models stride across the catwalk as a reconstruction of one displays various haute couture designs from recent years. Almost too excessive, too showy…yet it works. Maybe the true key to displaying fashion that oscillates between elegance and brightly coloured, textured luxury.

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Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

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Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Some are instantly known, such as Valentino or Dolce & Gabbana. Yet again, some are new arrivals, designers yet to become fashionable household names. In a sense, I wish I could have seen more of these. We see a lot of well-known fashion designers throughout the exhibition itself so giving more of the scene to a larger array of emerging designers would have been interesting. Yet this is a small point in itself…counterbalanced by a video at the end of the exhibition in which designers, editors and fashion experts are asked their opinion concerning the future of italian fashion, and encourage the presence of fresh emerging designers within the industry.

The exhibition finishes off with a greater focus on photography as not only the vehicule of a design but also of the idea and appeal behind it, sometimes drawing on lyrical, cultural and even political themes, such as the Benetton ads by its artistic director Oliviero Toscani that became revolutionary for the messages that they conveyed rather than their presentation of the clothing, making a brand image something other than its garments…making it desirable and glamorous as a concept in itself.

This exhibition left a great impression on me…and it might have been one of my favourite so far this year. It showed an immense love of the clothes and a concise eye not only on Italian fashion but on the evolution of an industry as a whole. I would have personaly loved to see more fashion sketches; there were a few dotted here and there as well but not always a clear overview concerning their contribution to the final product. However I understand the fact that the focus had to be on the Italian textiles and the way they shaped the design of the clothes, rather than the sketched idea. The sheer amount and quality of the clothes was overwhelming, although I would a few more in-depth spotlights on particular designers in certain places and maybe more historical context in terms of Italy’s political and social situation. How were other industries faring? To what extent were Italians themselves and their governement supportive in relation to international buyers, aside from the prosperity that this would inject into the country? The subject is mentioned but remains vague, perhaps reflecting the concluding video in which the need for renewal and economical support is stressed.

Another subject that would have interested me would have been the way in which Italians would express this dolce vita, nonchalant and refined way of dressing outside of the catwalk and workshops, to see a bit more of the “typical” dressers and consumers rather than having allusions to a faceless market. Yet, there was an immense width of information to cover and I think that this insighful overview was perfectly handled. On display until the 27th of July, this exhibition is one that I cannot recommend enough.

Categories
Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014 at the V&A (part 1)

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Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Italian fashion is a universal symbol of excellent taste and elegance. Its legacy and enduring influence on what we wear and the attitude we aspire to is infinite. But now more than ever, fashion is uprooted from the places it originates from. Influences from different countries and cultures merge, further encouraged by the internet, press and media. For this reason, this exhibition and its return to the geographical and cultural roots of Italian postwar fashion is essential, showing us how the fashion industry changed and thrived through regional industries that, with funding through the Marshall plan, managed to provide high-quality materials for the fashion industry.

While showing its national tradition and international flourishing the exhibition shows the way in which the relation to craft and presentation of a garment changed drastically, from seamstresses creating custom-made wardrobes to fashion designers creating ready-to-wear creations encouraged by shops and an increasing fashion media. Finally, we are projected into today’s Italian fashion and the way it both learns from the past and transcends it.

The exhibition divides itself into three sections, in chronological order, each of them possessing a particular design and atmosphere that makes our travelling through the space as viewers organized yet far from forced.

The first part introduces us to the Italy of the early 1950s, in the context of economic peril and reconstruction, receiving funding through the Marshall plan in order to revitalise regional industries. At the time, the idea of ready-to-wear clothes is not yet in place. The clothes that are displayed were made to order and made to measure – a testimony to the skill and tradition of the seamstress. The dim lighting soften the atmosphere and highlighted the intricate details on the ball gowns encased in glass; far from reduced to a clinical, documentary-like display, they are still stealing the show. After a quick glance at everyday wear, luxurious dresses are quickly in the spolight – a good contrast, but one that was almost too hasty. A more homogeneous glance would have given a good overview of fashion on all levels of society at the time.

Sartoria, or dresswear, came in many different colours and textures – silk, chiffon, satin, chantilly lace…and 80% of it was hand-sewn.The pink dress below, by Schuberth, demonstrates a stunning use of sfumatura, a gradation of colour from pale to dark, one amongst many examples of the technique and quality involved.

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Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

An immense array of skilled creators that lead the workshops creating these pieces, usually for a loyal clientele that is accustomed to a particular style or cut. The names are as numerous as the gowns are glamorous, with their richness and inventivity despite shapes that remain for the most part conservative and impractical, reserved for special events. Amongst them, Roberto Cappucci (the silk purple gown above), Alberto Fabiani and the Sorelle Fontana. The relation to WWII is often more intense for these creators than a concern with economy and clientele. Indeed Simonetta, whose exquisite satin and silk cream gown can be seen below, was imprisoned in the 40s due to her antifacist involvement.

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Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

She was one of the participants in Italy’s first internationally recognised fashion show, at the Sala Bianca in Florence, organized by Giovanni Battista Giorgini. An Italian buisnessman, his concern was to promote Italian fashion to an international audience, and draw the attention from Paris, the “couture capital” at the time. The documentation through letters and invitations as well as rare photographs and footage provided are testimonies to the rousing sucess of his first shows from 1951 onwards, showing the quality and variety of fabrics that would set the scene for the “Made in Italy” cultural trademark.

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Fashion show in Sala Bianca, 1955, Archivio Giorgini, Photo by G.M. Fadigati, © Giorgini Archive, Florence

Giorgini’s fashion shows were an immense success and the audience, first a select circle of press and clients, became larger and larger every year. He also drew heavily on the elements that made Italy Florence, a place that appeared attractive and glamorous to its American visitors – its history and culture. For this reason, a Botticelli was once on display in his show to create a clear relation between Italy’s past artistic success and its present.

These would have attracted more clients that had the means and elegance to satisfy their taste with lasting and loyal collaborations. One of these collaborations can be cristallized through the display of Margaret Abegg’s wardrobe, whose pieces were exclusively created by Maria Grimaldi, a dressmaker from Turin. Margaret Abegg herself was the wife of an American textile industrial and represented the exact clientele that Italy wanted to attract. She donated these clothes to the V&A and mentioned the fact that they had been widely admired in Paris and London: an international collaboration for an international woman. The clothes, both formal and casual, reflected perfectly the idea of the Total Look: a palette-specific, carefully coordinated wardrobe that was the result of discussions, readjustements and above all immense trust between the client and the dressmaker.

Once this first image of glamour and culture was established for an american audience, the american audience and its own cultural icons were quick to demonstrate a clear attraction towards Italy and its clothing, projecting a fantasy image of it through Hollywood films, such as Roman Holiday starring Audrey Hepburn.

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Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 The dress worn by Audrey Hepburn during War and Peace, shown above at the centre, was designed by Fernanda Gattinoni, who launched a whole line specifically adapted from Empire fashion. Other films such as Cleopatra, starring Liz Taylor, launched more casual trends, such as the palazzo pyjama, for semi-formal occaisions, coined by Princess Irene Galitzine and made famous by Jackie Kennedy. Despite the obvious glamour of these, the subtle arrival to a more casual style of dress is evident throughout the 60s and 70s as we progress through the room.

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Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014,Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The glamour that Hollywood drew from Italy was that of leisure and comfort associated with elegance, distancing itself slowly but surely from the weighty gowns of the 50s. This epitome of dolce vita was reflected in fashion for both women and men, whose suits were becoming more elegantly casual and nonchalant with the notion of spezzato (mismatching suit vests and trousers).

The transition can perhaps best be noted in Mila Schön’s matelassé gown, worn by Princess Lee Radziwi at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. The craft is unique, each sequin hand-stiched, yet the traditional cuts and waistlines of the 50s have been replaced by a less restrictive, playful linear form, emblematic of the 60s.

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Evening dress of embroidered net and matelasse coat, 1966, Mila Schön, Courtesy Maison Mila Schön, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Fashion as well as its image, its clients and their needs were quickly evolving, gaining momentum through the reputation that Italian craftsmanship was gaining on an international level. The tradition of made-for-custom dressmaking that established Italian fashion would create its own downfall, and give way to the ready-to-wear industry that could cater to a larger audience by the 70s.

This exhibition was rich and extensive; in order to avoid cutting too much out of it and for the sake of experimentation with my posts, I will let you discover the rest of it in a second part tomorrow, along with my own personal conclusions. In the meanwhile…enjoy a glamorous Sunday while celebrating Audrey Hepburn’s anniversary. Watching War and Peace and admiring the way she wears Gattinoni’s gown may be in order.