Saturday, 21 October 2017

Louise Dahl-Wolfe: a style of her own at Fashion and Textile Museum, London

Twins at the Beach, Nassau, 1949. Photograph by Louise Dahl-Wolfe. Collection Staley Wise Galley. ©1989 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents.

Just after I’d seen the Louise Dahl-Wolfe: a style of her own exhibition at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, I tweeted:

It’s rather a flippant way to sum up a photographer’s career but I think Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s skill is capturing women you’d like to be, in clothes and accessories you’d love to wear and in situations you’d love to be in. Whether it’s luxuriating in the feel of the sun while on a relaxing holiday or groomed to perfection in ultra modern fashion, the photographs' power transcends the intervening decades.

While Dahl-Wolfe has always been on my radar (just search this blog for references, or look at my Pinterest boards), it took seeing them en masse to twig the above, why her work really resonates with me. I’m letting myself off, as this is the first retrospective of her work to be held in the UK. It includes over one hundred photographs, spanning 1931 to 1959. The exhibition features her intimate portraits of Hollywood and literary stars and fashion designers but, understandably, it’s the fashion photography that dominates and which kept drawing me back. Those golden years at Harper’s Bazaar with Carmel Snow as editor and Diana Vreeland as fashion editor, where the magazine succeeded in shaping and selling a new kind of American woman. As Carmel Snow said of Dahl-Wolfe: “From the moment I saw her first colour photographs, I know Bazaar was at last going to look the way I had instinctively wanted.”

Over her 86 covers for the magazine, 600 colour plates, and over 2,000 black and white photographs, she portrayed modern, independent women, with the wardrobes to match. These women looked wealthy, sure, but they also appeared cultivated and interesting – like did something else with their lives rather than simply look fabulous in a dress.

Harper’s Bazaar Cover, June 1953. Jean Patchett Fashion: Shorts and short square jacket by Clare Potter at the Alhambra, Spain. Photograph by Louise Dahl-Wolfe ©1989 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents. Courtesy: Terence Pepper Collection

They went to places other than a photographer’s studio, in fact much further – to the then far-flung locales such as Cuba, Mexico, Tunisia and Spain, places that zing in Dahl-Wolfe’s colour photography. Fashion was portrayed as another strand of a ‘modern’ lifestyle – something that clicked with me when I saw Jean Patchett posing among Noguchi lamps on the January 1955 cover of Harper’s Bazaar.

The exhibition also notes a subtle shift, the rise of fashion photography as a profession. As Dahl-Wolfe noted, “there weren’t really fashion photographers, just artists like Steichen who just happened to do fashion photography.” As a female fashion photographer, she was treated with extra curiosity, such as in a 1941 Good Housekeeping profile, which claimed to find “out what a Woman Photographer does”.

Of particular interest to me was the show’s focus on the rise of modelling as a profession too. Like the Horst exhibition, models were credited for what they added to the fashion images. In fact, the press bumph for the exhibition argues Dahl-Wolfe was responsible for “arguably creating the first generation of ‘supermodels’”, for her work with the likes of Suzy Parker, Jean Patchett, Barbara Mullen, Mary Jane Russell and Evelyn Tripp. And her March 1943 cover for Harper’s Bazaar was undeniably influential in creating a new star – it’s where Lauren Bacall was spotted for Hollywood. What’s interesting is the longstanding relationships she established with her models: her archive at FIT estimates that Mary Jane Russell appears in roughly 30% of Dahl-Wolfe’s photos; Liz Gibbons posed for many of her nude studies.

Liz Gibbons as Photographer, 1938. Photograph by Louise Dahl-Wolfe. Collection Staley Wise Galley. ©1989 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents.

With her models, her editors and the fashion designs of the period. Louise Dahl-Wolfe cultivated an image of femininity that still chimes. Since seeing the exhibition, I’ve been in my leopard print, bangles (weather has prevented sandal wearing), my finger hovering over flights to sunnier climes. The fantasy of fashion has the power to inspire and to transport you; the reality of fashion goes hand in hand with social change. Its potential is beautifully reflected in this jewel of a show.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe: a style of her own is at London's Fashion and Textile Museum until 21 January 2018. 

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Burberry's Here We Are exhibition

Autumn is always a good time to be in London: it’s London Fashion Week, London Design Festival, Open House, not to mention the opening of a new round of exhibitions. As part of this cultural madness, this year Burberry hosted Here We Are, an installation in the 18th-century Old Sessions House with claims to document the “many and varied tribes and clans and classes that make up this island of ours”. In other words, like the Louis Vuitton Series 3 exhibition, it’s a PR exercise on a grand and spectacular scale. If the Louis Vuitton event was seemingly about establishing a design pedigree for the label, Burberry has done all out on promoting its Britishness.

On one level, it’s very hard to object to exercises like this. You get to wander around a stunning, otherwise closed-up building that’s been styled to its full Instagramable potential. You get to get closer to the new Burberry collection than you likely would in real life. And the real draw on this occasion was the hundreds of examples of British documentary photography on display, dating mainly from post-Second World War until the 1970s, with some more recent examples shot by Alasdair McLellan, who also gets co-curation credits on the exhibition (along with Christopher Bailey, President of Burberry, and Lucy Kumara Moore, of the art books store Claire de Rouen).

The photographs have been grouped by theme, rather than time period, with titles such as “Romance”, “Pomp” and “Picnics” and, if you consider it like a straightforward exhibition, there are some wonderful moments. “Lovely Day for It” is a brollies-blowing inside out, macs on, laugh out loud celebration of the British weather, while the snogging couples of Romance transcend time and their haircuts to chime with lovers everywhere.

It included some of my favourite photographic works, such as Ken Russell’s portrait of teddy girl Jean Rayner (as mentioned here), Roger Mayne’s Girl Jiving on Southam Street and Chris Steele-Perkins portraits of the Teds – all to view for free.

But, of course, it’s not really an impartial exhibition. It’s been put on by a brand wanting this event to enhance their brand. When that’s a brand that sells very expensive clothes, I find it uneasy to look at images of Gypsy communities, as shot by Jo Spence, or portraits of post-industrial communities. When you start feeling like the patterns of knitwear in the new collection echo some of those that you are seeing in the photographs, I think something has gone very awry. And because it’s put on by a fashion brand, rather than a gallery, the whole exercise escapes any real critical scrutiny – it's simply fodder for an endless sea of Instagram Likes.

It’s not all working class subject matter, defenders might say. Indeed, more upper class pursuits do come into it, mainly through the work of Dafydd Jones. But I don’t think it’s fair to say every subject that is featured in the photographs of the exhibition had the same opportunities to “live, work, dream, celebrate and challenge” (to borrow a phrase from the accompany leaflet). However, that doesn’t stop Burberry using their photographs – some featuring people wearing very stylish clothes, others that show people simply trying to go about their lives – to promote clothes that start at around £85 for socks and go into thousands.

The new Burberry collection – on display at Here We Are and featuring said socks – includes a perhaps surprising revival of the Burberry check. Within Britain the check pattern is still closely associated with the working class ‘chav’ culture of the 2000s, in mostly a derogatory manner. Although Christopher Bailey says he has “never been snotty about it, because I feel that’s a very important part of our history,” the received wisdom is that Burberry only survived that period because the ‘chav’ culture was such a uniquely British phenomenon and didn’t effect international sales. It’s noticeable the documentary photos in Here We Are skip over that era – apparently Burberry are willing to celebrate the working class except in the era when they were the most popular with the working class. I was even surprised they wanted to promote themselves in a way that could, in any way, be linked back to that time.

It gets even more complicated when you consider recent Burberry’s collaboration with Gosha Rubchinskiy. He was responsible for collection of clothes with Burberry this June, as well as a series of photographs on display in Here We Are – both are check-tastic. His own reference is to football culture, albeit seen through a Russian lens, the whole terrace culture that led to the whole ‘chav’ panic. Using Rubchinskiy makes it easier for Burberry to acknowledge their past without having to fully confront it. They can simply give it a knowing nod and pick up some extra cool points for those in the fashion know. But it’s confusing messaging, right? Even Burberry seems to agree with that in the Here We Are leaflet – it states “this is not an advertising campaign”, next to the section about Rubchinskiy images. But, of course, that’s exactly what the whole “Here We Are" exercise is…

I left Old Sessions House a bit uneasy and confused about what to make of it all. And then I read something about Burberry’s strategy in the early 2000s that really seems to click. Burberry pitched itself in an aspirational but attainable way – the way they picked nice, recognisable Kate Moss to front their campaign (and subsequently the likes of Romeo Beckham). They’re not actually aiming high at all – in fact, it becomes obvious with the all-inclusive “Here We Are” of the exhibition’s title. Instead they give us accessible art, which touches on meatier issues to flatter our egos, Instagram-worthy interiors to make us feel part of something and a namecheck (ha!) from the likes of Gorsha to make us feel credible. Really, it’s flattering enough to make you want to go and treat yourself to a nice trench coat….

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Meet Sumurun: the supermodel of the 1920s

I first came across Sumurun in Brigid Keenan’s 1978 The Women we wanted to look like. Here was a model, a household name according to Keenan, but I’d never heard of her before. She also appears in Charles Castle’s Model Girl described in breathless language as: "enchantress of the desert, the word’s most feted mannequin, courted and feted by many men, proposed to by at least a score."

So, as Molyneux’s star mannequin she was fascinating enough, but it was obvious from Keenan’s piece that – never mind wanting to look like – she was the women we wanted to be like. “I haven’t minded growing old,” she told The Sunday Times. “I can’t bear people who look back all the time – it is the most old-making thing there is. To live in the past is ridiculous.”

I thought of Sumurun when the recent stories about the mistreatment of models emerged at Paris Fashion Week. Sadly, “sadistic and cruel” treatment of models seems to be the historic norm, but it was a comment from the model Edie Campbell that really stood out:

“I’ve been incredibly lucky,” she said. “I have – by luck and by good management – made it to the top 1% who manage to have a voice and agency over their own careers. [But] I have witnessed a lot of upsetting things.”

Like Campbell, Sumurun made it to that precious 1%. Also, like Campbell, she was prepared to use her position to speak out.

The birth of Sumurun
As you’ve probably guessed, Sumurun was not her real name. The woman who was to become this “enchantress of the desert” was born in England as Vera Ashby. Well educated, she was pushed into finding a profession after her father’s antiques business failed.

She faced the limited choices available to women in that era. Vera had attempted being a chorus girl but disheartened with the experience, decided to try her luck as a mannequin at the London branch of Lucile. This was a much better fit, and she swiftly won the approval of the designer Edward Molyneux, then at the helm of the branch. Continuing the tradition in modelling that Lucile herself established, he renamed her ‘Sumurun’, a name conjuring up images of sensuous, exotic beauty.

However, Molyneux’s attempts to move the house forward didn’t sit well with the more stuck-in-the-past Lucile, and he was fired. Molyneux simply moved to Paris and opened his own house on the Rue Royale taking his two favourite mannequins – Hebe and Sumurun – with him.

Molyneux 1923, via 

Sumurun in Paris
Molyneux’s new venture was an immediate success, and it’s interesting to see how Sumurun is featured in the publicity. One New Zealand newspaper described Molyneux’s October 1920 display as the “greatest success of the kind ever known in Paris”, also noting that “Sumurun, scored a tremendous success, and after the exhibition, crowds waited outside the Molyneux salons to watch the departure of the famous beauty, much as if she had been a world-renowned prima donna.”

She also featured in a later report, written by the photographer Baron Adolph for Harper’s Bazar, which introduced her to an American audience, along with the latest Parisian creations. “My fancy decks them all in glittering brocades, in diamante, in endless ropes of pearls,” he wrote in the January 1923 issue. “Hebe, Sumurun, Ginette, Gaby – in fact, all of the most famous Paris mannequins. They float before me, a whirl of beauty and a confused vision of magnificence.”

The two mannequins Molyneux had brought with him from Lucile, Hebe and Sumurun, were two different types of women. Hebe was “an English girl with a melting complexion”, the perfect foil to Sumurun’s “oriental excitement’” Molyneux was continuing Lucile’s practice of picking out different types of women to highlight different aspects of clothes. There’s a Jean Rhys short story, 'Mannequin', which echoes this. Listing the girls inside a French fashion house, there’s: “Babette, the gamine, the traditional blond enfant : Mona, tall and darkly beautiful, the femme fatale, the wearer of sumptuous evening gowns. Georgette was the garconne...” I can't help but imagine Sumurun as the Mona type.

Molyneux’s forte was stunningly simple clothes that suited the thrust of the new decade. His designs were elegant, modern and “absolutely right”, perfect for clients that included period-defining woman such as Helena Rubintstein and Wallis Simpson. But amongst the refined blues and blacks that became Molyneux’s preferred colour scheme, there were more extravagant numbers. There were luxurious tea gowns patterned with Japanese blossoms to be worn with turbans and pearls, and tabard-like shift dresses that shone with the embellishments of metallic threads, silver beading and rhinestones. Irises, flamingos and coral fishes enlivened simple chemises, the kind of designs that would only be enhanced by Sumurun’s dark beauty. The finales of his fashion shows were known for being particularly spectacular. For one, Vera was rigged up with electricity. At the precisely right moment, the jewels in her turban and earrings lit up. Cue the rapturous applause.

 “Capt. Molyneux and his bevy of beautiful mannequins”

Thanks to a surviving British Pathé newsreel we get to see Sumurun in action. “Capt. Molyneux and his bevy of beautiful mannequins” made an appearance at the Daily Express Women’s Exhibition, held at London’s Olympia in 1923. On offer to visitors were a wide range of entertainments, from dancing to fencing but also fashion shows, featuring displays from big names such as Worth and Molyneux. Sumurun later recalled how a group of women had travelled especially from Bath to see her. Looking at the clip, one of the most noticeable things is the easy, natural rapport that obviously exists between her and Molyneux.

Behind the scenes
However, things weren’t so glamorous. A mannequin’s meagre wage would be further decreased by the necessity of purchasing stockings, shoes and accessories to accompany the ensembles modelled (remember the list given to a new model in Noel Streatfeild’s Clothes Pegs?). Sumurun’s memories of her earlier years in Paris were punctuated by less-than-glamorous meals of “sausages and mashed”. “Imagine wearing thirty guinea gowns and furs all day long and going back to a tiny bed-sitting room and cooking two sausages over a gas ring,” she recalled. “If that’s romance, I have heaps of it! And so have all the other mannequins I’ve ever known!”

How do we know all this detail about Sumurun’s career and life? It’s because in 1930, a five-part serialisation of her life story ran in the People newspaper and she used her position as the 1% (to go back to that Edie Campbell quote) to emphasise the poor conditions facing models (and this is at a time when modelling has an even sketchier reputation than it does today). Sumurun/Vera asks her interviewer what he thinks of mannequins. “I know what you are thinking”, she says, before he has chance to respond, “You think we are an empty-headed crowd of girls turning our good luck to easy, business advantage and probably ‘no better than we ought to be’”. Sometimes Vera is sarcastic, she is always self-aware (“we talked about men mostly”, she remarks about topics of conversations amongst models. “You can’t expect mannequins to discuss the theory of relativity now can you?”). She tells her audience, “A mannequin has to work – and work really hard – to be any good at her job”.

Molyneux, 1926, via

More significantly, she criticise those who perpetuate the poor position of mannequins within society. If “some of them become what people call ‘gold diggers;” she demands, “How can you blame them?” Vera was acutely aware that, despite their glamorous reputation, for the majority of mannequins “all that their gold digging amounts to is just a few jolly lunches and parties and perhaps now and again a handbag or a box of gloves or a bouquet or a big box of chocolates.” Modelling was, in her words “a blind alley profession for girls”, something that ended when the model is no longer deemed young and attractive enough to show the clothes. Even today, it’s still rare to see a high fashion model in her thirties or forties. Vera managed a relatively long career as a model, making appearances into her early thirties.

“Sumurun the Famous International Model”
Such was Sumurun’s fame, that she was able to successfully work freelance in the second half of the 1920s. An advertisement for Baroque of Bond Street boasted of having secured the services of “Sumurun’, one of the most beautiful mannequins”, while Barker’s, the department store, promoted a display featuring “Sumurun the Famous International Model”. Again, it reminds me of Edie Campbell’s quote about being lucky enough to have agency over your own career.

She moved back to London permanently in 1937 and became a vendeuse (“Madame Vera”) in Norman Hartnell’s salon, at a point when his star was on the ascendant. In fact, she boasted, she was given responsibility for dressing the Queen. And there she worked until her retirement in 1968.

Vera as Sumurun was lucky and canny enough to take advantage of the opportunities offered by modelling – going from “sausages and mashed” to the Queen – without it letting the industry take advantage of her: she was, like Edie Campbell, the fortunate 1%. How women’s lives have shifted over the last 90 plus years. It seems utterly crazy that, somehow, the modelling industry doesn’t seem to have done the same.

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