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.”

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