Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Elsbeth Juda, 1911 to 2014

I’ve only just heard that Elsbeth Juda died last month. While not a household name, Elsbeth was a connector and supporter, devoting herself to help artists and designers to become the household names.

Elsbeth Juda (on chair), at work, via

I was lucky enough to meet her when working on a book about the Ambassador magazine (I briefly mentioned it back here). The Ambassador Magazine grew out of the Dutch magazine International Textiles, and became The Ambassador thanks to Elsbeth’s husband Hans after the Second World War. It was used as a vehicle to promote British textiles and industry.

But that’s the barest headline details. Hans and Elsbeth were childhood sweethearts who fled Germany in 1933, carrying – as described by Elsbeth – only two suitcases and a violin. They threw themselves into their new British life with gusto (really, it’s hard to imagine them doing anything without gusto). Hans coined the slogan ‘Export or Die’ and The Ambassador, as suggested by its name, was his vehicle for taking British design and innovation around the world.

It was a trade magazine, so copies are extremely rare to find today, but it was a trade magazine with a difference. Artists such as Graham Sutherland and John Piper were commissioned to design covers, or illustrate the pages – frequently they found themselves encouraged by the Judas to design textiles as well. Elsbeth – working under the name ‘Jay’ – photographed many of the features for the magazine. How do you make a visit to a textile factory more appealing? Elsbeth’s answer was to wrap model Barbara Goalen (a frequent face within the magazine) in the cloth. This was the photograph – still so eye-catching and modern-looking today – we chose to use on the cover of the book. They took models to Switzerland and to Rio, injecting some of the gloss of their consumer counterparts into the industry. We also reproduced some of the features in full in the book to try and give a sense of the wit and energy that ran through the pages of the magazine.

Spread from The Ambassador Magazine book, showing imagery taken by Elsbeth to promote Lord & Taylor's British fortnight. Via Lizzie B design (Lizzie designed the book). 

The Judas were ambassadors in their own right too: Elsbeth, for example, went to the United States to forge vital connections that enabled the establishment of British fortnights in Lord & Taylor and Neiman Marcus. While clearing the photography permissions for the book, I corresponded with the relatives of the artists and designers with which the Judas had worked so closely. I was told again and again what a difference they had made to their parent’s careers, encouraging them, publishing their work, pushing them further, putting them in touch with the right people.

Some Ambassador magazine covers. Again via Lizzie B Design

One afternoon after the book had been published, I went with my manager to visit Elsbeth, who was then aged over 100, and to take her copies of the book. It should have been a 30 minute courtesy visit. Instead, we were encouraged/told to sit and join her for some celebratory drinks. We drank and talked and found ourselves introduced to a steady stream of people, of all ages and occupations, who had dropped into her apartment to pay their regards to Elsbeth, and really to have a good old gossip. The champagne was opened… I left 3 hours later (and only because I had another dinner invite). A quote from Maureen Lipman, used in Elsbeth's Telegraph obituary, sums up precisely how she appeared: “Elsbeth is a living affirmation of the staying power of being eternally curious.” As no doubt, many, many others will remark, I feel privileged to have met her.

To find out more, as well as The Ambassador Magazine book, you can view copies of The Ambassador magazine at the National Art Library at the V&A. The V&A also holds the archive of the magazine, while the National Portrait Gallery holds some of her work, including this lovely portrait of her and Hans. Elsbeth was one of the centenarians included in a project by Chris Steele-Perkin: Elsbeth's portrait is in the bottom right and was taken on the balcony of her flat. 

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Thursday, 7 August 2014

Last-Year Reads: Seven Sisters Style by Rebecca C. Tuite

Saddle shoes, plaid skirts, sports jackets: we’ve been here before when I wrote about how the spring/summer 2014 collections resembled the pages of a 1940s edition of Life magazine. With these fashionable reworkings of preppy style, the publication of Rebecca C. Tuite’s Seven Sisters Style this year is extremely timely – this book explores how the fashions worn in this prestigious group of American women’s colleges became markers of prestige and, in turn, set fashions and continue to have a powerful grip over the popular imagination.

As a British reader, I may need to look up the names of the colleges that make up the ‘Seven Sisters’ (that’s Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar and Wellesley Colleges), but I’m already well-versed in the style, thanks to films such as Mona Lisa Smile or Love Story, fictional graduates and students including the likes of Betty Draper from Mad Men and Baby from Dirty Dancing and countless magazines editorials, as well as looking at too many Life magazine pictures online. The influence of these students is powerful, yet perhaps not as well explored or fetishised as their male counterparts.

Tuite’s book explores the female version of “The All-American Preppy Look”, to quote her subtitle. Arguably, it’s slightly more interesting than looking at men’s preppy style, because of the intense scrutiny that is always given to how young women dress and appear in society. There are definite overlaps between the styles of the two sexes, the women taking cues from the campus styles of their brothers and boyfriends and dressing in button-down shirts and penny loafers, but there are definite items that belong to the girls. There are their weekend suits, for example – the subject of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s Vogue writing competition winning essay (she’s pictured in her suit, white gloves and pearls in the book), or the cardigan – apparently as early as 1916, Modern Knitting promoted patterns for seven different cardigans, each named after one of the Seven Sisters colleges.

Seven Sisters Style traces the commercialisation of the look, from the foundation of the colleges to the first college shop at Stern Brothers in 1930, under the supervision of former Barnard Student Estelle Hamburger, to the rise of brands such as The Villager in the 1950s and 60s in creating a mainstream version of collegiate style (especially interesting to me, due to this favourite vintage piece of mine). But what I loved about this book was discovering some of the individual fads that held sway on campus, such as the raccoon coat, pictured here on astronomy students at Smith in 1929. Initially worn to watch football games by Princeton students, they became popular with women students in the 1920s, a fad revived in the 1950s. However, the most desired coats were the most well-worn and “ratty” looking numbers, as “old and seedy as possible”. Some enterprising Smith students even set up their own secondhand raccoon coat agency for those not lucky to inherit an authentic hand-me-down. Visiting Vassar in 1947, Simone de Beauvoir noted a similar trend for denim, worn and dirty jeans contributing to the “studied carelessness” that defined these young women’s dress. And there’s no denying how many of their styling tricks still look undeniably cool today, from pushed up sleeves, to the embroidered name pictured running across the thigh of one pair of jeans that had me eyeing up my sewing kit. 

What’s also amazing is how well reported these trends and fads were, thanks to the likes of Life. It’s a 1937 Life article on Vassar that Tuite cites as the turning point in the influence of Seven Sisters style, while a 1944 feature, showing two Wellesley girls wearing “sagging jeans” and “baggy shirts”, “made the nation’s jaw drop and set tongues clucking round the country”, according to The New York Times magazine.

Looking through the beautifully illustrated pages of Seven Sisters Style, it’s easy to understand why these images held such influence. Photograph after photograph shows young women, sometimes with their young men, looking young, vital, handsome and happy. It’s very seductive. These college uniforms carried a status, and promised a corresponding lifestyle. Books such as The Bell Jar and The Group (both quoted in Seven Sisters Style) gain some of their power by their challenge to the happy-ever-after so inherent to the marketing of this style.

I wonder how much my fascination stems from being a British reader, an outsider (interestingly, the Tuite was also born in the UK, and went to university here, although she did spend time at Vassar as an undergrad), where our own ideas of college style is very much restricted to the male Oxbridge type. The style certainly has a currency outside of the States: just think of the continued popularity of American brands such as Ralph Lauren who are synonymous with the preppy look and the corresponding lifestyle. While Tuite is excellent on explaining the development of the Seven Sisters Style in all its permutations, and its influence on American fashion, she’s not quite as convincing in explaining why the look carries such global appeal. It turns out everyone wants to be an elite American college student. Young, envied by the world: it's no wonder the women pictured in Seven Sisters Style look so happy.

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Monday, 4 August 2014

Diana Vreeland: the fragrance, and the brand

Diana Vreeland is an undeniable force in twentieth-century fashion: if you're interested in magazines, or fashion exhibitions, it's impossible to overlook her influence. I've written about her a few times on this blog, specifically in relation to her 10s, 20s, 30s: Inventive Clothes exhibition and Amanda Mackenzie Stuart's biography, published last year. So I'm more than a little intrigued by the news of Diana Vreeland: The Fragrance, as featured on on Disney Roller Girl last week.

The launch is credited to her grandson, Alexander Vreeland, who was been driving D.V. projects such as the Memos book. As a project, it certainly ticks lots of Diana boxes. She was well-known for her love of scents, Chanel being used to fragrance both the Inventive Clothes exhibition and The Glory of Russian Costume. The bottles "representing aspects of her personality", according to French Vogue, (although disappointingly regular in appearance) are recreated from a 1920s decade, true to her adoration of that decade. They certainly look "divine" - to use a Vreelandism - lined up like that, although at £135 a bottle it's unlikely any - let alone a whole row of them - will end up on my dressing table. The scents themselves sound rich and heavy, instantly conjuring up an image of Vreeland reclining in her red living room.

The names themselves, however, are disappointingly prosaic: Extravagance Russe, Absolutely Vital, Perfectly Marvellous, Outrageously Vibrant and Simply Divine. If you've ever glimpsed at one of her delightfully vague memos, her hilariously obscure "Why Don't You?" columns, or her wonderfully un-museum museum catalogues, I'm sure you'll agree these probably aren't the names she would have picked for herself. With the possible exception of Extravagance Russe, these evoke no mystery, no romance at all. And Vreeland was all about the mystery and the romance, sometimes at the expense of reality.

As the blog post says, this is the first step to create a bigger brand using Diana's legacy. In terms of people to brand, I get this: as her biography shows, no-one was better at creating brand D.V. than D.V. herself. But, given the price point of these perfumes and their marketing, there's obviously a serious amount of money behind this launch, banking on wealthy customers who are going to "get it" and want to buy into the Vreeland legend. And, if it succeeds for perfume, there are obvious products the brand could do next: she was well-known for her love of rouge, and of nail varnish just for starters. Perhaps there could even be an interiors range, certainly a fashion line... (if whoever is behind this launch reads this, hire me! I'm sure I could come up with a few more ideas for you.) I'm so fascinated to discover how this line is received and how it develops.

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Friday, 1 August 2014

This Month's News

I'm not just writing this to bemoan my lack of posting recently (but, woes, so many half written posts still sitting in drafts) but because THINGS are happening which deserve more than 140 characters on Twitter.

For those of you who discovered my blog through Domestic Sluttery, you'll no doubt already know the sad news that the site is closing today. I've been writing for it since 2009 and editing it since last year. It's been such a marvellous thing to be part of, with the most fantastic team of talented, funny and warm writers, and such devoted readers. It's going to leave a huge hole in my life. (If you want to hire me, and help me fill some of that hole, do get in touch. You can find out more about the things I do here.)

After the well-deserved slush fest that will be our closing bash this evening there are some exciting things coming up. Next weekend, I'll be heading to the Wilderness Festival, where I'll be taking part in a creative clinic organised by Oh Comely magazine. More details and how to book here. Come and say hello.

I'm then flying to Portugal, to enjoy some sunshine, custard tarts and culture in Porto and Lisbon. Let me know if you've any great tips for either of those places. I've been in Lisbon once before - a frightening 6 years ago now - and I'm really excited to explore it again.

And this picture was taken on Tuesday, my birthday, from the rooftop of Franks bar in Peckham. I can't quite believe the skyline but it's really real. London is pretty amazing sometimes.

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Friday, 11 July 2014

Eileen Ford

Eileen Ford in 1948. Via

By now, I'm sure you will have all heard the news that Eileen Ford - co-founder of Ford Models with her husband, Jerry - died earlier this week, aged 92.

Ford Models in 1948: more here

It's staggering to look at the huge numbers of famous were once represented by Ford, and including names we now associate with professions other than modelling, such as Martha Stewart and Ali MacGraw, as well as Lauren Hutton, Jerry Hall and Christy Turlington. Less mentioned in the various articles about her life are the great faces of the 1940s and 50s she supported, including Dorian Leigh, Jean Patchett, Suzy Parker, Barbara Mullen and Lisa Fonssagrives.

When the Ford Agency was founded in 1946, they weren't the only ones working to professionalise the industry. John Powers and Harry Conover already ran successful agencies. But, a woman heading up an agency - much like Lucie Clayton in the UK - did shift how both models and the modelling industry were regarded, especially thanks to such shrewd family-friendly publicity as this Life piece from 1948, showing inside the agency. This picture shows model Joan Pedersen looking after a Ford child as Eileen watches on. She also made her agency into a brand, with books, newspaper columns and modelling competitions.

Eileen Ford's biography is apparently due to be published next year. Think of all those changes, not only affecting models but also fashion and working women more generally from the 1940s to today. It should be - if she has done herself, and all of her models, justice - a fascinating read.

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Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Mannequin Glide

What do you picture when someone asks you to imagine a fashion model's walk? For me, it’s Naomi Campbell confidently strutting the length of the runway. But models haven’t always strutted. Sometimes they’ve slinked, sometimes they’ve glided and, of course, they've "catwalked". This film from 1933 talks about their “easily flowing” movements.

This is more than just wordplay. In The Mechanical Smile, Caroline Evans convincingly argues that the walk of mannequins changed in the early twentieth century, from the rolling walk, influenced by popular dance crazes of the period, through the hips-thrust forward bored slouch of the 1920s.

Clothes themselves also influence the way a woman walks. Think about how wearing a corset, or a hobble skirt, or simply a raised heel would effect the way you walk. A mannequin, as the first person to wear each round of new fashions, and probably in a more extreme interpretation than would be sold to a customer, has to work out new ways of displaying these new fashions - and making them look desirable.

The mannequin glide, however, is not just a description. Given how Evans’ explores the links between dance and the model’s walk, it’s fitting that the “mannequin glide” is also the name of a dance. In March 1939, the British Mannequins Union organised a ‘Mannequin’s Ball’ in aid of Guy’s hospital. To really celebrate the occasion, they also invented their own dance, drawn from other popular routines, and called it the “mannequin glide”. Model school owner and one of the organisers of the ball, Lucie Clayton told the Daily Mail at the time, “We felt that as fashion repeats itself we were justified in going back and picking out a Mannequin Glide out of bits of dance history.”

Rather than picturing a catwalk, let’s instead try and imagine a ballroom at the end of the 1930s, and a beautiful group of women showing off a carefully rehearsed dance routine. What are you picturing? Well, I’m pretty certain it’s not this.

This. This is the only surviving photo I’ve found of the Mannequin Glide. While it doesn’t show the elegant swan-like models gliding past each other on the dancefloor, I like it all the more for that. It reminds us that models were real women, who also liked to have a laugh and a good time. And, given that my own dance routines have often included a jaunty leg-kick or wagging finger, perhaps it's yet another pioneering example of the influence of the mannequin on the way women move.

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Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier

You know that tune from Moulin Rouge – "Spectacular, Spectacular" – that’s what plays in my head every time I think about The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition currently on at the Barbican. The show has got all of his greatest hits, from striped sailors to conical bras, and a star-studded cast list. It’s got talking mannequins and Spitting Image puppets. It’s even got its own Can-Can dancer.

Needless to say, the show is brilliant fun. The mannequins – who pout and babble incomprehensible little French nothings thanks to some clever projection work – the mechanised mannequin parade and the footage, taken from films and pop videos, as well as JPG’s extravagant catwalk shows make for an all-together theatrical experience. It’s impossible not to get caught up with its energy, to believe that, yes, a tin can necklace is a wonderful thing, and that bondage outfit would be just the thing to wear to the office Christmas party. 

Much of is made of Gaultier’s inclusive idea of beauty and unconventional approach to high fashion, partly influenced by the time he spent in the creative clubland of London in the 1980s. He goes for less conventional-looking models or feisty pop starlets such as Beth Ditto or Madonna. Likewise, his happy mix of ‘high’ and ‘low’ means Eurotrash's place in this exhibition is as justified as the most immaculately crafted piece of haute couture. And, unlike other designers, whose ideas often don’t translate further than the fashion market, he seems to have achieved a wider social appreciation: this is the first fashion exhibition I have been to in the UK where more than 20% of the audience were male (small steps!). 

You become so seduced by Gaultier’s charm and his madly creative world, that it’s easy to forget the world beyond the exhibition space. You believe, that when he puts a woman or a man in a corset, it’s a positive thing, a symbol of someone in complete control of their own sexuality. Taken out of context, put on a different person, and it becomes just another starlet desperately wanting to appear sexy in a corset. Once out in the mainstream, whatever Gaultier may want us to believe, it’s impossible for the outfit to retain its original intentions. 

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier is a brilliant show. It will make you laugh, it will make you clap, it will leave you wanting more. It’s just that he’s such a showman, and this is such a show-stopping feat, you start wondering if – like the Duke of the Moulin Rouge – you’ve been the victim of your own Spectacular, Spectacular deception. No matter how good, with these exhibition monographs of living artists that are shown without an accompanying level of critical interpretation, there’s a sneaky suspicion you might not be being told the true and full story. But Monsieur Gaultier wouldn’t ever want to deceive his English chums, non?

Photography was allowed throughout the exhibition. These were all taken by my exhibition accomplice, Roxanne.  

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