Friday, 21 November 2014

Silent Partners: Artist & Mannequin from Function to Fetish at the Fitzwilliam Museum

Paul Huot (French, active 1790s to 1820s), Female Mannequin, c. 1816
Wood, metal, horsehair, wax, silk, cotton and painted papier-mâché head, c. 163 x 65 cm, © bpk - Bildagentur für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte / Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel

I've written many times about mannequins on this blog and the mannequins I've always been referring to have been real-life women working as fashion models, rather than inanimate objects. But the fact that I need to spell out that distinction goes a little way towards illustrating the complexity of the word 'mannequin'. I looked at that in relation to fashion models here, but the current exhibition at Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum, Silent Partners: Artist & Mannequin from Function to Fetish redefines it entirely again. The exhibition is devoted to the latter definition of mannequin: the inanimate object, that has been used by artists for centuries. The exhibition shows how they were first used to stand in for human models for reasons of both practicality and propriety, but by the 20th century, they become subjects to be explored and manipulated in their own right.

Unknown maker (British, mid-18th century), Fashion doll with costume and accessories, 1755–60

Wood, gesso, paint, glass, human hair, knitted cotton, satin, silk, gilt braid, wire, silk gauze, linen, cotton, and silk satin, H.60 x W.42 x D.43 cm, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

But even these mannequins were more than simply an artist's prop: they became a vast, commercialised industry. There were mannequins figures available for all sizes of wallets, going from basic figures up to the most deluxe padded 'Parisian stuffed lay figures'. It was Paris - also then the centre of the fashion business - that was undoubtedly the centre for these mannequin figure makers too. There's a fascinating crossover between the disciplines, as a mannequin maker would create models for dressmakers and shops as well as for artists - despite their different audiences, these were all model figures, intended to support clothing.  And although the focus of this exhibit is 'art' - demonstrated largely through fine examples drawn from the Fitzwilliam's own collection - this crossover means there's plenty of fashion in the display too, as illustrated by the a print showing a display mannequin used in a shop on Paris' Rue Saint-Honore in 1777, and the inclusion of a "pandora". Also known as "colporteurs" (peddlers) or "couriers", these were intricately painted wooden life-size figures created to be toured around Europe and show-off France's latest luxury fashions - why didn't the real-life mannequins take on one of these names instead, I wonder?

In fact, a very specific vocabulary developed around mannequins in art criticism. For most artists, their use of mannequins were intended to go unnoticed in the finished painting - these objects were the 'silent partners' of the exhibition title. If a composition looked too stiff, betrayed the fact it had been posed by a model, not a human, critics would say that it "stank of mannequin". The noun became a verb to reflect this criticism: "mannequiné", or "mannequinised".

The artist with his two "models". Wilhelm Trübner (1851–1917), Studio Interior, 1888

Oil on canvas, 104 x 88 cm, Museen der Stadt Nürnberg, Gemälde- und Skulpturensammlung
Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg, photo: Jürgen Musolf

By the 1880, mannequin-making was at its peak, contributing almost 25 million francs to the French economy a year. As well as being the dutiful silent partners for mannequins, these figures were seen in dioramas, wax-work displays, shop windows and as dolls. These were expensive and luxury items. One of the most popular dolls was the "Parisienne", a figure shaped like a mature woman, complete with a desirable wardrobe and accessories. She fell from favour to be replaced by the more familiar - but at that time, no less expensive - "Bébé". At the same time, painters began to become more playful with their mannequins, playing up the tensions between the object and their real-life models.

The scale and the sophistication of the mannequin industry had implications on the fashion industry too. Stockman - still one of the 'the' names for mannequins - created a range of mannequins, each in a slightly different size. Producing a standardised range of figures helped pave the way for ready-made clothing.

Jean-Eugène-Auguste Atget (1857–1927), Coiffeur, Palais Royal, 1926–7
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

What hadn't really occurred to me before visiting Silent Partners - and probably my only criticism of the exhibition - is how, in the 1920s and the 1930s, public interest in both mannequins-the-objects and mannequins-the-women were concurrently at a peak. Mannequins-the-objects populated department store displays at the same time as being exploited by Surrealists for their ability to conjure up a sense of the uncanny.The artist Hans Richter described them as the "embodiment of urban modernity". At the same time, mannequins the women were regularly engaged in fashion parades in these same department stores: sometimes walking two, three times daily. Like their object counterparts they were dressed in the latest fashions, and like their object counterparts, they did not speak (think of the couturier Paul Poiret's commandment "do not talk to the models, they do not exist"). They were every bit a symbol of urban modernity.

Erwin Blumenfeld, American Vogue, 1 November 1945, via

The interchange between the two was carried over to fashion photography too, especially through the work of the Surrealist. Man Ray was employed by Vogue and other magazines to photograph clothes on Siégel mannequins, while a picture in the exhibition by Umbo, titled "Träumende", or "The Dreamers", is reminiscent of a fashion photograph by Erwin Blumenfeld. Fashion still continues to be inspired by this theme, as the installations created by Tim Walker and placed around the museum demonstrate. (The uncanny nature of the mannequin can also still shock, as I remembered as I walked around the final corner of the exhibition to be confronted by some Chapman Brothers creations.)

Silent Partners was a riveting show, which drew together so many different threads of art and cultural history. And, although Silent Partners was definitely an 'art' exhibition, compared to the last 'fashion' exhibition I went to - the disappointing Women, Fashion, Power at London's Design Museum - it definitely taught me something new about fashion history as well. How disappointing that so many fashion exhibitions aren't allowed to step up to equal such challenging, but ultimately satisfying, standards.

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Saturday, 8 November 2014

Early 1940s fashions in Love Lessons by Joan Wyndham

Joan Wyndham, via

Last year I wrote about the early 1940s fashions depicted in Dawn Powell’s novel A Time to Be Born. Powell cleverly uses descriptions of clothes – descriptions of clothes so accurate they could be lifted straight from the pages of a period Vogue – to shape her characters. I was thinking about early 1940s fashion again as I was reading Joan Wyndham’s Love Lessons.

#3311009 / gettyimages.comFemale ambulance drivers pictured waiting for an emergency call on a pile of sandbags outside a Chelsea garage. 23 September 1939.

Though both books are slyly funny and extremely smart, they are also very different. Wyndham’s book is based on the diaries she kept as a teenager, kicking around the bohemian corners of Chelsea, London. It chronicles those teenage obsessions of boys (of course!), food (trips to Lyon’s Corner House or the pastry shop figure heavily) and clothes in such glorious detail that until the bombs start falling and conscriptions papers turn up you actually could forget you are reading a book set in the war at all.

12 October 1939
“Yesterday was my seventeenth birthday. I got Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and a beautiful pale-grey coat with a hood, which I think makes me look very appealing! Also a scrummy cream cake with seventeen candles from Deschuyter’s pastry shop on the corner.”

Art students decorating the shop hoardings on the shattered shop fronts of Oxford Street, 1940. 
Photograph by George Rodger, via

Shopping for clothes isn’t described in the same way as shopping for cakes is but Joan describes getting a new “very smart” plum corduroy coat from Harrods (happily noting: “Luckily, my bedroom hasn’t been destroyed by the bomb so I could try it on"). She came from a wealthy background and, reading the passage below describing her getting ready for a party, it sounds like she also used a private dressmaker as well as, at 17, being well practised in make-up application:

Saturday, 4 November 1939
“I washed my hair, and kept it done up in pipe cleaners all day, so it looked really nice and curly when I brushed it out. I also tried a new parting, sort of slanting across from the left and held back on one side with Kirbigrips. I think it looks sexier than my snood.

“I took a lot of trouble over my make-up, putting on Max Factor pancake with a sponge and two layers of the new cyclamen lipstick I’d got in Woolworth’s – I also wore my best black dress (what am I talking about, my only black dress!) for the second time. It’s the one Miss Mannery made for me with the V neck and ruched shoulders. I really looked pretty hot stuff, if I say so myself!”

#3142251 / A student at Chelsea Art School, c. 1940.

Joan’s style subtly changes through the course of her diary. She enrols in art school, noting carefully the “flat feet … dirndls and brightly checked blouses” of the older students. She also meets Prudey, an older artist, who Joan admires enormously. On 6 April 1941, Joan describes how:

“Her toilet is simple in the extreme – she wears no underclothes, summer or winter, except for a thin pair of flowery cotton pants. Over that go her violet jersey and scarlet dungarees, red socks with black shoes, and a blue sheepskin coat with a scarlet lining. All the reds are just slightly out of tune with each other.

“Today her hair was brushed straight across and fastened by a slide … She covered her raddled boy’s face with Ardena powder, painted her lips scarlet, and said, ‘I wish I knew how to make up!’ Prudey is thirty but you’d never think it. I don’t know why I love her so much.”

Harrods News, 9 October 1939, via

At the start of the diary, Joan admits she’s nervous about going out wearing trousers; by the end of 1940 she receives pair of green trousers for Christmas (along with cold cream and stockings). But it’s hard to believe the women she sees around her don’t influence her choice of clothes. Those scarlet dungarees of Prudey are mentioned admiringly in a few diary entries. It’s also apparent that Joan is mixing in very bohemian circles and what these women are wearing can’t be seen to represent the rest of London, let alone the rest of Britain. On a visit to Tunbridge Wells, Joan realises “what didn’t look right were my feet on Lalla’s neat gravel path, the scuffed leather sandals and the red I had put on my toenails so as to look good when sitting for Leonard.” I also love the thought of her art school friend Susan, dressed in “emerald green corduroys and a cerise blouse”, wearing shells around her neck, declaring: “Hell, I’m so sick of being arty! I think I’m going to marry a stockbroker.”

British Vogue, 17 May 1939, via

Perhaps one of the most striking things about the clothes in Love Lessons are their colours. From Susan’s emerald green corduroys and cerise blouse to Prudey’s scarlet dungarees and many other items including that delicious sounding “blue sheepskin coat with a scarlet lining”, it’s a vivid reminder not to see the 1940s simply as the colours of its black and white photographs.

Outside a Soho nightclub, 1942. Photograph by Bill Brandt, via

There’s one character in Love Lessons who definitely stands apart in terms of her style, and that’s Squirrel. Squirrel is Joan’s rival for the attentions of her beloved, handsome Rupert. According to Joan, she “looks like a Vogue cover with black hair tied back in a snood. She is very small and fragile, with a beautiful short nose like a Pekinese, and eyes like small black cherries.” In fact, Squirrel sounds like she could have come straight out of the pages of A Time to Be Born, dressed in her fur coats with “long red nails, and her brown wrists clinking with barbaric silver bracelets.” No wonder Joan simply states “I hated her on sight.”

Squirrel is a glimpse into another, more glamorous side of 1940s style. Joan writes:
“She and her sister Bosie live in a typical glamour-girls apartment with stockings and suspender-belts drying everywhere and the radio playing jazz. When we arrived Bossie was sitting at her dressing-table putting oil on her eyelids. She is v. glamorous and native, and was wearing plaid trousers and a transparent white shirt through which her breasts stuck out like spears.”

Recruitment poster by Laura Knight, c.1940. via

A no-less formidable rival eventually replaces Squirrel, but Joan’s diary entries only go up to the beginning of 1941 meaning that (in Love Lessons at least) we don’t get to read about what happens about her relationship with Rupert. We also don’t know how Joan copes with the hardest of the war years: not least the difficulties she’d face in obtaining cake, clothes (Utility clothing didn't start being introduced until the end of 1941) and even men! But Joan does go off and join the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Here, clothes become a leveller, albeit perhaps not always a welcome one:

9 April 1941
“Modesty is thrown to the winds are we are drilled by male PTOs in our ‘blackouts’ i.e. black service knickers and no stockings. All of us – long thin housemaids, huge fat cooks and outraged debuntants – hop up and down in our underwear. We are a macabre sight, everything that can shake or wobble does, and everything that can come loose, comes loose.”

Wyndham’s experiences in the WAAF have their own devoted book Love is Blue and I really can’t wait for it to arrive to find out what Joan did – or what Joan wore – next.

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Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Punk Debunked: Museums, Publishing and Punk

Anarchy in the UK, French vinyl single. Via

The accusations of plagiarism surrounding VivienneWestwood’s new memoir are sure to strike cold fear into the heart of anyone who has been involved in publishing. Much of this story smacks of a tricky but eagerly awaited book being rushed through to hit that all important Christmas market: no time to confirm sources, no time for a proper proof read, no time to fact check.

And Vivienne Westwood probably doesn’t care about this controversy in the slightest. Despite her being co-opted as one of our British national treasures, Westwood is a punk, and – as the mouthpiece of punk Malcolm Mclaren once said – “stealing things is a glorious occupation, especially in the art world.” Punk wasn’t based on acknowledging your sources, or paying dutiful respect to those who went before you. It’s a cut and paste movement; creativity born from chaos. As the Sex Pistols snarled in “Anarchy in the UK”, they “wanna destroy”: what punk celebrates is the antithesis of the aims of a biographer.

Dates, facts, provenance: these are all things punk doesn’t care about. It’s hardly surprising that punk has created problems for museums, as well as publishing houses, as exemplified by the problems surrounding the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of ‘punk’ clothing. Take the view of record producer, John Porter, who was quoted in the Guardian on the Met controversy: “if the clothes were real, you’d feel cheated.” His argument emphasises that punk has always been more about attitude than authenticity.

Bondage suit, 1976. Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. Collection of the V&A Museum. 

For a relatively recent movement, punk retains its mythology. It’s still mysterious and, perhaps as a result, it’s still cool. The Manchester Free Trade Hall Sex Pistols gig, for instance, is regularly reported as one of the most legendary gigs of all time, but in reality, probably only had an audience of 50 people at most. Not aiding any search for punk ‘truths’ are Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren (now veraciously represented by his widow Young Kim) – at the heart of any critical discussion of punk – who tussle over their relative contributions to punk’s formative years. When the Westwood exhibition opened at the V&A in 2004, McLaren staked his claim on the earliest, punk pieces in the show. He had a point: these pieces were born out of the creative collaboration between the two of them. But it continues. Despite the spokesman saying in that 2004 article that “Vivienne has always tried to make clear the exact nature of her collaboration with Malcolm and she is extremely happy for him to be credited where appropriate,” I noticed that the punk pieces in the Women, Fashion, Power show, currently at London’s Design Museum, were credited only to Westwood (possibly because she also loaned pieces for the show?). And, just as McLaren laid claim to the clothes, Westwood is now asserting her contribution to the music, stating in her new autography that the phrase “Anarchy in the UK” was her idea (leading John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, to dub her a “silly cow”).

We expect our museums and our books to bust myths and establish truths, but punk doesn’t seem to want to play ball. Punk’s legacy is about more than the look – it’s that all important attitude too. Meaning that while anyone can stick safety pins into their ripped T-shirt, without the corresponding punk spirit, it becomes another empty fashion statement – as seemingly demonstrated by the disappointing reviews of last year's Punk exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

For those who want to play by the rules, Punk is undeniably frustrating. There is no definite biography, no comprehensive collection. But, grudgingly, I have to admit there’s something quite enjoyable, inspiring even, about all the chaos that still surrounds it. Do we need to make order out of everything to be able to fully appreciate it? The final words go to McLaren: “England deceives itself. It is a nation of liars.”

Friday, 24 October 2014

Oscar de la Renta: The Fashion Maker

“If my life were to end now … I would have no regrets. I’ve lived every day to the fullest and I’ve had a marvellous time. I’ve tried to be nice to people I care about and ignore the ones I don’t. I enjoy what I’ve done.”

Spread in The Fashion Makers by Barbra Walz and Bernadine Morris

Understandably, the death of the designer Oscar de la Renta early this week resulted in a huge number of tributes. One - frustratingly I can't remember which - used the quote taken from the book The Fashion Makers, which described what de la Renta said on his 40th birthday.

It sent me back to the book to see if the way he was talked about in the late 1970s was any different to the way he was discussed his week. And – pleasingly – the answer is no. The profile reveals the same charming Oscar, who enjoys the company of “people with a tremendous commitment to life” and making beautiful clothes for women in the spotlight (although while contemporary articles mention the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Jessica Parker and Amal Clooney, The Fashion Makers goes for Nancy Kissinger, Pat Buckley, Lee Radziwill and Babe Paley). The verdict of the author, Bernadine Morris, that “fashion has been good to him, and he’s made his mark on it, turning out clothes that are usually outrageously feminine and flattering,” could have been taken from 2014 as easily as 1978.

Spread in The Fashion Makers by Barbra Walz and Bernadine Morris

When I wrote about this book before, I commented on the mix of old meets new designers in the book. Looking at the other names from the book that are still known and operating today, de la Renta seems to stand apart again, distinct from the preppy empires of Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren or the soft, strong, body aware fashions of Diane von Furstenberg and Donna Karan.

“Being well dressed hasn’t must to do with having good clothes,” he states in the piece. “It’s a question of good balance and good common sense, a knowledge of who you are and what you are. There are many kinds of taste. The rules that apply to one person do not hold true for another.”

As much as talking about how to decide what to wear, in that simple piece of advice Oscar de la Renta summarises the design philosophy that maintained the desirability of his clothes for over forty years: know yourself and stay true to your style.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Talking vintage fashion with Nicky Albrechtsen

One of my first jobs after going freelance was project managing the Thames & Hudson book, Vintage Fashion Complete. It's a huge book, over 400 pages, over 90,000 words, over 1000 pictures. The book is based on the amazing collection of Nicky Albrechtsen.

In the sea of vintage fashion books that now exist, Nicky brings a stylist's eye to the subject. She explores vintage fashion through its prints and patterns - from animal print to polka dots - and through its individual elements, be that a jumper, a swimsuit or a wedding dress, making it more of a gorgeous book to inspire than simply another fashion history of the twentieth century.

When she's not writing books for Thames & Hudson (she's also written on scarves, handkerchiefs and spectacles for them), Nicky owns Vintage Labels, a vintage clothing resource studio in London. She was kind enough to answer some questions for me about her love of vintage and her incredible collection.


The lovely Nicky Albrechtsen 

How did you start collecting vintage?
Vintage clothing has really always been apart of my life although I never gave it such a grandiose title. I grew up during the sixties in fairly impoverished circumstances, albeit in the very attractive and bohemian lower part of Hampstead, known as Belsize Park and Primrose Hill. Jumble sales were the primary source for clothing and household bits and pieces and nothing was ever new. We would queue for ages on a Saturday morning outside church halls and scout huts, but what we found was amazing and I had the most fantastic dressing-up box. I still have the old wicker chest that I kept everything in, it's one of those large old theatrical hampers that belonged to my father who was a dancer, but sadly none of the wonderful clothes that were in it. As a cash strapped art student most of what I wore came from the local Hampshire jumble sales and once I joined the BBC costume department as an assistant designer "old clothes" took on the new title of "period costume" whether the era of the particular story was set in, be it the early 1800s or the 1950s.

How big (roughly) is your collection now?
I'm too scared to count the individual garments but it fills a studio that is 18, 000 square feet and everything is hung on two tiers of scaffolding! (Not counting the boxes and drawers…)

How did you grow it into a business rather than purely a passion?
After having trained and worked as a fashion textile designer, I changed track and joined the BBC. My changing career taught me to appreciate the value of old clothes from all aspects. I had always sold vintage pieces that I picked up from the fantastic jumbles sales around Hampshire where I was at art school. It supplemented my student grant and it proved there was a demand for lovely old clothes. When the BBC made all the design services redundant I began to freelance as a designer and stylist and over the years ended up with quite a large, eclectic stock of garments that were too good to sell. I knew their value to both the fashion/ textile trade and other costume designers and stylists so I looked for premises in a good location.

What is your favourite piece from your collection?
It's impossible to pick one – I have so many pieces that I love for different reasons; I have some beautiful jersey pieces from the seventies by Bill Gibb and Yuki. The clever cutting and resulting drapery is exquisite making them timeless without being boring classics. Among the scarf collection I have several of the famous Ascher Squares by different artists that I love not only for the artwork but for the uplift their acquisition gave me. I went out buying very early one Saturday morning at the time I was writing the book Scarves. I was feeling utterly depressed and exhausted from family/ work pressures and the additional commitment of trying to write a book. I picked up two of the most famous squares by Philippe Julian and the yellow rose design by Cecil Beaton for Ascher for pennies! How could I not continue the book on scarves?! Julian's illustrative designs are so intricate and Beaton’s rose is so evocative of the early fifties.

Have you any piece you really regretted letting slip through your fingers?
When I first opened up the studio on a commercial basis Topshop's online department approached me to supply them with really special vintage garments. Nothing like the cheap, easily found vintage that was sold in store at the time and can be found in many vintage shops and concessions today. The buyers wanted to create an online vintage selection, very high end, expensive and unusual. From my constant sourcing, I used to sell them the garments that I felt I could part with: one maxi dress was a real museum peace by Jean Varon. The floral print was so bold and distinctive set within a black and white checkerboard border, rather like an empty crossword. Around the neck someone had filled in an address and phone number on the white squares: it conjured up pictures of bohemian sixties parties and a very stoned gentleman leaving his contact details on a ladies dress. I managed to remove the ballpoint message and Topshop loved it: but that dress would have quadrupled in value even now. 

Now that vintage is your business, do you still wear as many vintage pieces?
Yes of course! But I really miss my art school days when my best friend and I used to plan our Saturdays around the local jumble sales of Winchester. We used to drive around in her old green Renault 4 called Horace and return with the car overloaded with naval whites, fifties ball gowns, thirties silk night dresses – just an incredible selection. My staple student summer wardrobe included white canvas brogues and long white cotton drill sailor shorts.

What is a ‘typical’ day/week in your business?
In all honesty no day is really typical! I am constantly sourcing new stock, which is getting harder as British stock is starting to run out. I may have an appointment with a high street design team looking for inspiration for two seasons ahead or I may be prepping for a photo shoot or helping a costume designer select garments for a television series. I rarely know what the following week will bring!

Have you noticed any difference in the types of vintage being most sought after in the last couple of years?
There is an increasing demand for inexpensive "recent" vintage that is cleverly styled by the vintage shops. While many knock it for not really being "vintage" it has an important place in the cycle of fashion; street trends often trigger fashions that are adopted by the more commercial and mainstream markets.

Now that vintage is fashionable, do you think it’s in danger of becoming over-priced/over saturated?
Original pieces cannot saturate the market as there simply aren't enough of them. But many are abusing the term vintage and applying it to any second hand clothes. These are saturating eBay, market stalls and cheaper venues. The rarer, original pieces are being bought and resold through "curated" vintage outlets so much that the price is just escalating. A dealer will search auctions or ebay for desirable garments that are then bought and resold by selective vintage shops and so on: the price of a garment just increases as it passes through so many hands.

What piece of advice would you pass to someone just starting to experiment with vintage?
To do just that; experiment until you find the shapes and styles that suit you. Vintage holds its price so garments can always be resold if you make a mistake. Think eclectically, not in terms of era – treat each garment as a thing of beauty in its own right and then you will successfully blend it into your wardrobe.

And what advice do you wish someone had told you when you started collecting vintage?
Well I suppose I have always looked at vintage professionally rather just for wearability. So I will buy a ripped mouldy dress if it has a commercial print. I don't think there is much anyone could have told me except that it was going to start running out more quickly than anyone ever imagined.


Thanks Nicky for those wonderful insights. But how depressing is the thought of vintage running out? Stockpile now, everyone (I seem to have been obeying that policy for quite a few years now...)

You can order a copy of Vintage Fashion Complete here. Nicky is also taking part in an event at London's Fashion & Textile Museum on 6 November, discussing how vintage fashion influences contemporary style. Find out more and how to get your tickets here

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Monday, 6 October 2014

Monday Detail: The Hand Motif

5. The Hand Motif

Gloves designed by Elsa Schiaparelli, autumn/winter 1936. Philadelphia Museum of Art

Over at my new blog Fancies, I've pulled together a collection of items all inspired by the hand motif. While I was writing it, all I could think about was Schiaparelli. I'd seen some of her hand gloves in the Paris Haute Couture exhibition and they still looked suitably shocking, almost 80 years on.

Causse x Yazbukey via Colette

Really, this 2014 design, a collaboration between French glovemakers Cause and the designers Yazbukey just jazzes up her idea a little. 

Another company I feature, Vivetta, have a love of the Surreal that screams Schiap, while the scarf makers SuTurno acknowledge their debt to the designer on their About page.  

Evening belt, Elsa Schiaparelli, a/w 1934. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Schiaparelli first employed hand motifs eighty years ago, for her autumn/winter 1934 collection. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she also used hand on a jacket, cape and handbag. Schiaparelli was moving in Surrealist circles and the hands, along with the rest of the body, were a key surrealist motif. The likes of Man Ray in his photographs and Meret Oppenheim's art objects also played with them in their work. 

Elsa Schiaparelli 'Cocteau' evening jacket, a/w 1937. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This jacket from Schiaparelli's autumn/winter 1937 collection is a result of her collaboration with Jean Cocteau. Indeed, her association with the surrealists proved fruitful in many ways: think of her witty Shoe hat or the Lobster dress which resulted from working with Salvador Dali. 

Elsa Schiaparelli brooch, a/w 1936. Via Or Not Magazine

As well as the gloves and the bags, Schiaparelli used hands motifs for jewellery too. This elaborately bedecked brooch was designed by Jean Schlumberger, Schiaparelli's jewellery designer, for the a/w 1936 collection. 

Almost as well-accessorised is this contemporary hand brooch, this one designed by Lou Taylor

Hand motifs also appeared in a/w 2014 collections from the likes of Holly Fulton, Osman, Opening Ceremony, Karen Walker and Carven. Perhaps - in reaction to all the 'normcore' chat - fashion is taking a turn for the surreal. now, wouldn't that be fun? 

Monday, 22 September 2014

Models Never Talk

Over the last few years, I've become more and more fascinated by fashion models. There they are throughout fashion history, the medium through which a designer presents the clothes to the consumers, but them models rarely get studied in their own right (Caroline Evans' The Mechanical Smile is one of the honourable exceptions).

Instead they can be seen as instruments for the designer or the photographer to convey their vision. Think of Paul Poiret's instruction, "do not talk to the models, they do not exist," Their mute beauty creates a canvas onto which we can project our fantasies and also our fears: remember the blame that was laid at the feet of the models in the size 0 debate?

I was therefore really interested to hear about a presentation put on by Paris' Palais Galliera curator Olivier Saillard in Paris, titled "Models Never Talk" (pictured above, and at the top of the post). It featured seven French mannequins who had worked for the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Rei Kawakubo and Thierry Mugler during the 1980s and 90s. From their memories, Saillard put together a script, which the models themselves acted out, dressed in black leotards and tights, reminiscent of the black tabards that had to be worn under the garments shown by the very first models in the late 19th century.

Through their performance, according to this report in the NY Times at least, they not only showed how couture felt and moved, they also showed how they walked and how cut and footwear could change the way they walked (remember The Mannequin Glide from even further back in modelling history?). It's interesting in itself the show was reviewed in the dance section of the paper. "Models are an important part of fashion history,” Saillard is reported as saying by “They are important to a fashion designer’s process. But suddenly, when they’re on the catwalk, they’re silent."

Sarah Grant on World of Difference, via

This week, I came across another example of models talking, a 1978 TV programme called World of Difference: The Models that's back up on the BBC website thanks to their current Sound of Style season. The programme contrasts the experiences of Cherry Marshall, a model in the 1940s and an agency owner in the 1950s and 60s who I wrote about here, with those of Sarah Grant, an Australian model working in London in the 1970s (and who, more recently, modelled for Chanel in Sydney aged 60 according to this article).

The film is well worth watching for many reasons, including a brilliant appearance from Norman Parkinson. But it's also great in charting how much modelling changed over that 30 year period, from the upper class gals with their cut glass accents (I did not expect Cherry Marshall to sound like that) and their ladylike demeanour, to personalities, nudity and the storytelling of the 1970s and that we take for granted in editorials today. “I regret that the glamour has gone," Cherry Marshall says. "That your average model girl today doesn’t look like a model. You pass her in the street and she could be anybody. I think that’s a shame.” 

Both Saillard's show and this TV programme prove the point that when a model talks, you can learn something new, and different, about the process of fashion than you might get from fashion designers or journalists. Perhaps that shouldn't need to be stated. But, as articles such as this one remind us, there's still a lot that models need to speak out about.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Fancy New Fancies

I was meant to be setting up a professional website; instead I found myself creating an entirely different blog. Fancies is my new toy, a brand new blog devoted to brand new things, from fashion to interiors. You can take a look here, follow it on bloglovin here and on Twitter here.

It's going to include the kind of thing I wrote about for Domestic Sluttery and the kind of thing pictured here, plus a few more "in my wildest dreams" pieces. Basically it's a place for all my materialistic urges, meaning Last-Year Girl will continue on its vintage/bookish path: not quite as new, not quite as shiny, but equally beloved by me.

Hope you enjoy reading/looking at the pictures/window shopping along with me!

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Buying Biba

Biba is having a moment. Well, Biba always seems to be having a moment. Remember the excitement about founder Barbara Hulanicki's range for Topshop? Or the Brighton exhibition last year? Even House of Fraser's Biba collection (nothing to do with Hulanicki) can't seem to dampen the love for this 1960s and 70s label. That's certainly reflected in the prices: clothes that were proudly pitched at secretaries, as well as model girls, now go for hundreds and thousands of pounds. 

Part of the reason for the current enthusiasm is down to this gorgeous new looking book, The Biba Years, published by my friends at the V&A and written by Hulanicki with Martin Pel, the curator of the Brighton show. The Biba label is also strongly represented in next month's Kerry Taylor auction, as the sale includes Lorraine Harper's Biba collection. Harper worked for the company between 1970 and 1975 and her role, which included merchandise planning and overseeing production, means she was able to collect one-off Biba pieces as well as the kind of merchandise that defined Biba as a lifestyle brand. Over at FarFetch, they're also promoting a collection of vintage Biba, sourced by the L.A. boutique Decades.

Biba vintage cat print trouser suit, FarFetch

It's amazing how fashionable these Biba pieces look in 2014. Check out this vintage cat print trouser suit for example. See also: culottes, floral trousers, chunky platforms.

Madeline Smith, photograph by David Silverstein. Via

Biba vintage geometric print mini dress, FarFetch

At FarFetch, the Biba items have been listed alongside contemporary pieces that share the same aesthetic, including many of the accessories from the new Saint Laurent collection.

Biba black and white striped lurex dress, early 1970s, Kerry Taylor Auctions

Biba dress photographed by Arthur Elgort for British Vogue, November 1972, via

While Biba's original photography and merchandising, and the almost-mythology surrounding the Biba stores, create a notion of undeniable glamour, perhaps the most noticeable thing about the clothes themselves is that they seem so wearable. They're clothes you can imagine buying for parties and special occasions, or even every day: I'd like to wear an awful lot of these clothes regardless of their label. That combination is as potent today as it must have been in the 1960s and 70s. Imagine what it must have been like when the clothes were also comparatively affordable.

Biba vintage off-shoulder maxi dress, FarFetch

Sunday, 7 September 2014

What's your fashion type?

Bullock's tea room, Los Angeles, 1920s. Via. Is this the "daily fashion showing during luncheon"?

How would you describe your fashion personality type? Are you artistic, with a love of vivid colours, peasant necklines, and bizarre jewellery? Or are you modern, sleek, boyish, “just now shingle bobbed”? I’ve taken those descriptions from a 1920s guide to fashion personality types by L.A. department store Bullocks (as quoted in this post on American Age Fashion), but – according to Elle magazine at least – these questions are just as valid in 2014. Their September accessories supplement asks the question: “What kind of woman are you?” with possible answers including The Athlete, The Lady, as well as The Modernist and The Artist (illustrated with some vividly coloured bizarre jewellery, naturally).

The September issue of Elle UK pushes fashion ‘types’ in a big way. In her introduction to the issue, editor Lorraine Candy writes: "I'm excited about a/w 2014 because there are no style rules - every trend is open to your own personal interpretation, which means fashion is fun again … Now you can be anything from a BMX biker girl to a power woman dressed in superbold colours." Exciting, yes, but it's further into the magazine they get to the real crux of the matter, writing: "In her 10 years on the magazine, Anne-Marie Curtis has seen some remarkable seasons come and go. And this one: It's tricky."

For fashion magazines that thrive on picking out trends and must-have buys, this disparity of styles is tricky. Simon Doonan expands on this in a piece for the FT:

“The fashion landscape has never been more vast, diverse and mind-numbingly confusing than it is today. Where there were 20 designers, there are now 20,000. Where there was serenity, there is now only mayhem and despair.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the fashion commentators – editors, reviewers, fashion directors – are in total denial. Rather than cop to the fact that mother fashion has exploded and fragmented beyond all comprehension, these advice-givers persist in distilling the season into a neat little cluster of trends just as they always have: masculine tailoring! Couture shapes! Grey is the new black!”

He concludes with the advice: “In order to traverse this endless fashion landscape … you need only take one simple step: you must adopt – drumroll – your own signature look.”

Except it’s not that easy, is it? No matter how closely you opt in or out of trends, they do influence the way we get dressed in the morning and they help us judge, for better or worse, the people we encounter. Most importantly, they help drive that urge to go shopping, because (if you're me, something along the lines of) you realise you don’t own any culottes and suddenly they look quite fresh and fashionable and actually you quite fancy trying some.

We’re not in the early 70s anymore, but – according to Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s account at least – towards the end of Diana Vreeland’s editorship at Vogue she being criticised for not letting her readers know about trends: by encouraging them to create their own style, she was alienating them. Moreover, she was losing the support of the magazine’s advertisers who needed her to push trends.

Thanks to the internet, it’s easier to go shopping and buy anything we fancy. Perhaps we’ll see more fashion ‘types’ used again in editorials and by shops to help us navigate all the choices, with future purchases governed by BuzzFeed-style quizzes. Back to September 2014, “Here's how to nail it, whatever your style” states Elle, giving you options whether you are A Rock Chick, Ladylike, Boho or A Minimalist (these types all distinguished by the Use Of Capitals). However, just like Bullock’s insistence that dark hair and dark eyes qualify you as the artistic type, this argument isn’t terribly convincing either. We can have days when we want to look ladylike, (perhaps a job interview), or like a rock chick (at a gig maybe?). Talking about people in terms of fashion types seems even less persuasive than talking about wider fashion trends.

In a much wider field, how we going to be made to Buy More Things? And to Buy The Things the huge clothing brands want us to buy? The answer is probably closer to Doonan’s suggestion of a signature look. But I imagine that signature look won’t be your own: it’ll be the look of a celebrity or, more likely, one of the uber bloggers, who can attract dedicated and devoted readers. Read about their lives; shop their wardrobe. Less fashion personality types; more fashion personalities.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Behind the velvet rope at New York's El Morocco

Last year, I took you behind the scenes of Studio 54 as a collection of memorabilia from that legendary club was put up for auction.

A collection from another famous New York nightspot, El Morocco, will be auctioned next month, giving us a chance to step behind their infamous velvet rope.

It’s the collection of John Perona, who opened the club in 1931, initially as a speakeasy. In its heyday which latest from the 1930s to the 50s, El Morocco became known as a haunt for the international rich and famous. The auction itself is largely made-up of the objects Perona bought with his profits from the club, a mix of fine French treasures and complete kitsch (this balance of class and kitsch seems to typify El Morocco), but there is also plenty that those obsessed with this apparent golden age of glamour can salivate over.

El Morocco is attributed with starting some of the customs associated with the most exclusive establishments today. There was the velvet rope, lifted only if you withstood the doorman’s intense scrutiny. You were then led to your table, and heavens forbid if it was the remote part of the dining room nicknamed ‘Siberia’. And then there are the countless photographs of the stars, shown against the distinctive zebra-banquettes. There are many of these photographs available in the auction, sold in lots of 125 a go, and they feature the most starry of names: Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth, Clark Gable, Salvador Dali (he did like a party – remember he was also pictured at Studio 54?).

These pictures, most likely taken by the in-house photographer Jerome Zerebe, who perhaps helped invent the idea of the paparazzi. He said in an interview quoted here: “The social set did not go to the Rainbow Room or the El Morocco until I invented this funny, silly thing of taking photographs of people. And the minute the photographs appeared in the paper, then they came.”

This photograph of the famous debutante Brenda Frazier meeting autograph hunters is press-ready, caption and all. I would also love to sit and read through the scrapbook of carefully assembled press cuttings that’s also available in the auction.

VIPS were certainly made to feel welcome at El Morocco. They appear to have been lavished with gifts, if sample of Pucci scarves, ashtrays and jewellery pictured here are anything to go by. There was a newsletter. Then there’s the El Morocco Family Album, published in 1937 as a gift for regulars and featuring their photographs taken at the club (see, for example, the page featuring Little Edie Beale, shown here). Copies of the book already sell for thousands, so no doubt Perona’s own volume, signed by the likes of Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich and Gloria Swanson, will attract some considerable interest.

The crowd was carefully cultivated. Along with the names who would attract newspaper coverage, there would also be the businessmen who could pay their way into (and would actually pay in) the club, as well as debutantes, European nobility and the likes of Truman Capote, a regular at El Morocco long before he was famous because Perona thought he was interesting. It was where, according to a 1930s advert, “smart New Yorkers welcome the elite of the world.” Or, in other words, the place to see and be seen. In D.V., Diana Vreeland recalls visiting with Clark Gable: “We arrived; we stood behind the red velvet rope. By then, word had gone out that Mr Gable was in the house, and Mr John Perona, the owner, came to take us to our table. Clark grabbed my hand. 'Don't look left,' he said, 'and don't look right, just keep walking. Hold on to your hat kid, this place is gonna blow!' As he said it the place went berserk, I mean berserk! The stares! The people leaning out over their tables! It was almost animalique, like a roaring zoo.”

Nights spent amongst the plastic palm trees and zebra upholstery were fondly remembered. Powers Model Carroll McDaniel recalled: “From my point of view, El Morocco was the most glamorous place in the world. It had an atmosphere that was magic and which you couldn't get in any other place.” Laura Shaine Cunningham, meanwhile, collected some wonderful memories in this piece for the New York Times, from getting dressed up in Hattie Carnegie to dancing with Gershwin. This lost glamour was evoked by Truman Capote in his story “La Côte Basque, 1965”:

Mrs. Matthau extracted a comb from her purse and began drawing it through her long albino hair: another leftover from her World War II débutante nights—an era when she and all her compères, Gloria and Honeychile and Oona and Jinx, slouched against El Morocco upholstery ceaselessly raking their Veronica Lake locks.

Perona died in 1961, not long after the club had relocated to a new address. The auction includes letters of condolence sent to the family, including this one from Joan Crawford. While the era of El Morocco has gone, and its zebra banquettes sadly long rotted, this auction gives tantalising hints of what lay behind the club and its velvet rope. Who wants to come in with me and buy one of those sets of photos?

All pictures from El Morocco: The John Perona Collection auction catalogue by Doyle New York, 16 September 2014.

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Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Last-Year Travels: Porto and Lisbon, Portugal

Back in the frantic pace of a rain-lashed London, it's hard to imagine that this time last week I was skipping (read: walking at that extra slow pace only achieved by tourists) around a sunny Portugal, enjoying my first visit to Porto and my second to Lisbon.

Lisbon has changed a lot in the intervening seven years. It's certainly noticeably easier for tourists in regards to things such as finding good meals, although some locals we spoke to feared it was changing for the worse, becoming much busier, much dirtier. But, for now, both cities have so much to offer visitors. They're beautiful places to explore for starters, with brilliant museums and architecture, with beaches and spectacular scenery close by. There's some great shopping to be had in high streets not yet dominated by chains. And with specialities such as Port (obviously) and ginjinha, they're a great place to imbibe, relax and be merry.

Here are the rooftops of Porto in the historic Ribeira area of the city, a maze of twisting streets and steps with wonderfully seedy back stories. Today the story is that the riverfront is packed with visitors who take advantage of the stunning views as a backdrop to their food and drink. Across the river is Vila Nova de Gaia dominated by the very English names - Taylor's, Graham's - of the Port wine manufacturers' lodges. 

There's many more examples of stunning architecture to be discovered. The Art Deco Serralves Villa definitely falls into the category of my fantasy home.

Out towards Lisbon, meanwhile, the castles of Sintra verge on the fantastical, with the make believe views to match.

This was the holiday I also discovered I share my name with a glorified meat sandwich. This is the Francesinha (meaning little frenchie), a combination of ham, sausage and beef sandwiched in bread, covered with cheese and covered with a brandy-infused spicy sauce. And served with chips (these were half portions, apparently).

Lisbon's food scene has been enhanced meanwhile by the opening of the food court at the Mercado da Riberia - you could have another Francesinha, if you really wanted to, or speciality seafood, hamburgers, sushi and many tempting desserts (we may have been tempted).

Portugal does good drinking. Some of Porto's good bars are clustered around Galeria de Paris and Rua Cândido dos Reis, although at this stage of the holiday we were still struggling with the British vs Portuguese drinking hours so perhaps didn't explore as fully as we could. Last time we went to Lisbon, we hung around those lining the streets in the Barrio Alto. The crowds seem to have got younger (or - more likely - we got older), so this time our drinking seemed to be more centred around the formerly down at heel, you'd only go there to get the train to Cascais, Cais do Sodré. Above is one of the restored drinks kiosk in the area, adding prettiness and yet another opportunity to drink to the area.

And you could paint the town pink on this street, the Rua Nova do Carvalho. We really liked Sol e Pescais - a tiny bar packed with fishing equipment and tinned fish. Never has tackle seemed so hip.

Shopping in both these cities are great if you want a break from the usual chains. Porto's Livraria Lello & Irmão is the stuff of Pinterest dreams, regularly featuring on lists of the world's best bookstores. Photography is restricted to an hour each day, and it's so rammed with tourists there's no space for casual browsing. Nonetheless it's undeniably stunning.

The picture is taken in Ler Devagar in Lisbon's LX Factory - also a place with a claim to world beauty - a huge converted factory space with art installations and the chance to eat your dinner squeezed between the components of a printing press (surely the ultimate for any book geek). The LX Factory is a 19th century factory complex, now transformed into a hub for design and the arts. It sounds pretentious but it's delightfully laid-back, a great place to spend a sunny Sunday.

Talking of design, MUDE - the Museum of Modern Design and Fashion - has also opened in Lisbon since my last visit. Set within the sympathetically converted environment of what was once the huge main branch of a bank, there's an interesting changing rostra of exhibitions and a great display that gives the potted history of design in the twentieth-century, all for free.

There's plenty of opportunity to shop vintage too - pictured is Porto's lively fleamarket. I made a return trip to Lisbon's Outra Face de Lua too (where I previously picked up this dress and some deadstock Pop84 trousers this time). Also check out its neighbour Viúva Alegre (which translates as The Merry Widow, and comes complete with a cute cat!) and Ás de Espadas.

Perhaps the very best kind of holiday. And definitely with no need to heed this command, spotted from our hostel window.

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