English Lavender & the KGB

Journalists from around the world stood in a semi-circle before her, their arms and voices raised as they jostled to ask questions. Among the impatient crowd, all of whom were men, television cameras rolled and flash bulbs flared. Behind her, standing on the street outside, members of the public pressed themselves against a wall of glass to spectate on the event unfolding within. It was Monday, 16 July 1956 and Marilyn Monroe was in London. The Hollywood Star was attending a press conference at the Savoy to talk about her new film, a musical comedy that was soon to commence shooting at Pinewood studios, The Prince and The Showgirl. Wearing a black knee-length dress, matching heels and white opera gloves, Monroe was sitting beside her husband, Arthur Miller, who appeared agitated and crumpled, and her director and co-star, Sir Laurence Olivier, who was poised and quite perfect. Playing with a recently lit cigarette in her right hand, Monroe seemed confident, but her smiles were hard rather than happy; she was bracing herself for the cross-examination.

One of the more impertinent journalists asked about her nocturnal dress: “Do you still sleep in Chanel no. 5?” An impossibly large grin stretched across Monroe’s face. “Considering I’m in England”, she began coquettishly, “let’s say I am sleeping in Yardley’s Lavender”. Monroe’s interrogators delighted in her wickedly smart retort and she looked justifiably jubilant.

The Savoy press conference is depicted in Simon Curtis’ film My Week with Marilyn (2011) and Yardley continue to clarify the connection between Monroe and one of their best-selling fragrances. Of course, whether Marilyn Monroe actually wore Yardley’s Lavender perfume was never really the point (and she may not have worn Chanel, either: records from perfumer Floris show that an order for six bottles of ‘Rose Geranium’ were placed by Monroe’s personal assistant Dorothy Blass in December 1959). Her quick-witted response did much to demonstrate her guile, which contemporaries doubted. The comment also added to Monroe’s libidinous allure, which was, and remains, central to her critical and commercial appeal. The significance that Yardley beauty products assumed for Monroe during the 1950s was momentary, but it is possible – and certainly interesting to ponder – that her riposte, delivered at a time of heightened tension in the Cold War, provided inspiration for Soviet spies. Far from the public eye, hollowed tins of Yardley Aftershave Powder were being used by members of the Portland spy ring to send British nuclear secrets to Moscow.

The activities of the Portland spy ring were exposed on 7 January 1961 by Polish-born triple agent Michael Goleniewski (codenamed ‘Sniper’ by the CIA and ‘Lavinia’ by MI5), who had defected to the United States. Goleniewski alerted law enforcement agencies to a mole at the Royal Navy’s Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment on the Isle of Portland in Dorset. Apparently, details of Britain’s first nuclear submarine, HMS Dreadnought, had been leaked to the Soviets. Names were not disclosed, but suspicion quickly focused on former sailor, likely alcoholic and suspected security risk, Harry Houghton, who worked at the facility. Minimal surveillance soon revealed the other members of the spy ring: Houghton’s mistress, naval clerk Ethel Gee and Konon Trofimovich Molody, who masqueraded as Canadian Gordon Lonsdale, an apparently successful entrepreneur who sold jukeboxes and bubble-gum machines. Completing the sextet were quinquagenarian vintage bookseller Peter Kroger and his wife Helen, whom Molody frequently visited.

The Krogers appeared to live a frugal life at 45 Cranley Drive, an unassuming bungalow in Ruislip, Middlesex. The impression of banality was purposefully deceptive. The couple were actually Morris and Lona Cohen, KGB agents. They had met in America, where they were born. Lona’s parents were Polish; Morris had a Ukrainian father and a Lithuanian mother. A graduate of Columbia University, in the 1930s Morris had fought in a volunteer division during the Spanish Civil War against General Franco. Whilst in Spain, he met Amadeo Sabatini, a long-serving Soviet spy, and gained his entrée into the world of espionage. Morris Cohen appears to have stayed loyal to the Americans during the Second World War, but on his return to the States, and as the Cold War began, he resumed his work for the Russians. At some point before 1954, he and Lona relocated to London, and to Cranley Drive.

The Krogers’ bungalow was no ordinary suburban residence. Upon entering the property in 1961, Special Branch officers discovered the bathroom had been converted into a dark room. The attic space contained a 74-foot radio aerial and a transmitter capable of reaching Moscow. Bank notes totalling $6,000 were also seized. Most surprising of all was the array of unassuming household bric-a-brac the couple possessed: a cigarette lighter with a false bottom, a torch with hollowed batteries, drinking flasks with secret compartments and metal tins of Yardley Aftershave Powder that contained microfilm with radio contact times. Details of the haul were disclosed at the spies’ trials. Molody, as go-between and mastermind, was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison; the Krogers to twenty. In each case, the sentences were commuted and the spies were exchanged for British subjects who had been incarcerated by the Soviets. Harry Houghton and Ethel Gee served the full length of their fifteen-year sentences. In a sort-of happy ending, they married a year after their release, in 1971.

The exposure of the Portland spy ring came at a time of acute anxiety in the Cold War. In October 1957, the USSR had launched the Sputnik satellite into orbit around the Earth. The Americans were unable to match this feat until 1958. Understandably, they were deeply concerned at how quickly the Soviets had progressed in the Space Race; espionage was suspected. Three months after the Krogers’ home was raided, Fidel Castro declared his revolution in Cuba to be Socialist. This act humiliated America’s new president, John FitzGerald Kennedy, who received a drubbing from the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, when the pair first met in Vienna in June 1961. Recalling the incident at a later date, JFK admitted, ‘He beat the hell out of me’. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, as the threat of Nuclear Armageddon threatened, there was good reason to believe the Communists were gaining the upper hand in the Cold War.

Simultaneously stoking and sating people’s paranoia about Mutually Assured Destruction, a new genre of spy fiction provided fantastic stories about the enemies in people’s midst. The villains thwarted by Ian Fleming’s James Bond were invariably larger than life caricatures with melodramatic schemes for world domination. The foe that surfaced in John le Carré’s novels, the first of which, Call For The Dead, was published in 1961, seemed all the scarier for their apparent normality and ability to hide in plain sight.

Two weeks after the police raided Cranley Drive, Marilyn Monroe divorced Arthur Miller. She spent much of the next six months recovering from physical illness and depression. News of the Portland spy ring’s discovery may never have reached her. If it did, it’s anyone’s guess whether the spies’ use of Yardley products recalled to her mind the comment she had made in the Savoy five years’ earlier. It is tempting to think the Krogers and their spy masters were attentive in 1956 and that they had been influenced by Monroe’s remarks. How better – and cruelly ironic – to disguise confidential secrets heading into Communist Russia than in containers depicting a popular brand associated with one of the Capitalist West’s best loved Stars.

An edited version of this article first appeared in Article Magazine.

Plain Kate: Vogue’s Centenary Shoot

Photographing the Duchess of Cambridge for the centenary cover of British Vogue was surely an obvious choice. Few people at present seem to inspire as much popular sympathy, pique as much interest and reflect the magazine’s focus on high style and high society, than the wife of Britain’s future king.

Deciding whom to photograph was evidently easier than deciding on how this was to be accomplished. The media commentary that has accompanied the shoot has generally been neutral or gently positive, but there was (perhaps inevitably) criticism. Daily Mail journalist Liz Jones was the most forthright dissident: she likened Vogue’s photographic spread to a Boden catalogue.[i] The comment is not without some foundation, but it is interesting – to me at least – for what it reveals about the importance of dress in Kate’s elevation to the ruling house of Windsor.

Prior to her marriage to Prince William in 2011 – as a would-be royal – Kate Middleton delighted the world’s media with her high street sartorial thrift, but now that the Queen of England is her mother-in-law, there is a sense that people expect more of the Duchess’ wardrobe choices. Whilst her preference for high street brands seemed to go down well with the press during her tour of India,[ii] the collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery – of whom she is a patron – and Vogue evidently called for panache over price: Liz Jones complains that, ‘[the photographs in Vogue are] too rural, too hunting, shooting and fishing, when we were waiting for something red carpet. A princess.’

British Vogue’s editor, Alexandra Shulman, clearly realised the difficultly of her task. The editorial that she writes to accompany the photographs in Vogue’s June issue repeatedly stresses how the photographic shoot with Josh Olins was low key. Shulman describes the January shoot, somewhat awkwardly, as ‘a day of unexpected informality’. Her intention to emphasise the Duchess’ humility and approachability – she ‘scarcely … checked herself in the mirror’, never looked at her phone, ‘not once’; and arrived wearing rollers in her hair – reads like special pleading.

The ordinariness of the Duchess is inadvertently called into question by Shulman herself, when she explains how fashion director Lucinda Chambers arrived with ‘10 suitcases of clothes’ and a ‘van-load of props’. At the end of the day, the Duchess’ ‘Land Rover sped away down the track’. The pleasant fiction that the photographs portray the Duchess as ‘the same as the rest of us’ is ultimately exposed by their accompanying captions which reveal Her Royal Highness is dressed in a good deal of Burberry, although a hat from Beyond Retro and boots from Dune are more accessible purchases, for those who wish to emulate the royal look.

According to Shulman, the tone of the shoot was dictated by the Duchess, ‘who was not keen to be shot in gala gowns and tiaras’ and preferred the countryside, ‘to reflect an element of her private existence’. A vintage bicycle and ‘the family dog, Lupo’ do provide a semblance of normality, but this shoot is no more real or authentic than the portraits produced in the sixteenth century for the Tudor dynasty. For sure, vogues and values have changed since Hans Holbein junior immortalised his royal patrons in oils (now over five hundred years ago), but the difference with Olins’ shoot is one of degree rather than kind.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Hans Holbein jr. and Anthony Van Dyck were required to project a view of royalty that was palatable to the British public and, as a consequence, become a vehicle to sustain the popularity of the institution of monarchy. Josh Olins’ shoot is no different (although relevancy might now be a more pressing concern than popularity). In short, if Vogue’s centenary photographic shoot was ‘informal’, it was intentional and not ‘unexpected’.

The Duchess would have been wary of appearing too much like the former Princess of Wales, with whom she is obviously and frequently compared (and much of the media coverage surrounding this recent Vogue shoot has been contrasted with Diana’s Vogue cover of 1981, snapped by Patrick Demarchelier). The Duchess would surely have also been mindful of her political status: she will become queen consort and, in turn, her son will become king. So, decorum, sobriety and motherhood might have been key concepts to convey for posterity.

More generally, the nod towards financial prudence within the Duchess’ shoot – the combination of designer and high street brands – chimes with attempts by British royals to empathise with their subjects during a period of economic stringency. During Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee, for example, BBC commentators suggested the decision to drive from Buckingham Palace to St Paul’s Cathedral for a service of thanksgiving – and thereby dispense with a carriage procession – was to cut back on pomp and so avoid the charge of insensitivity (the Queen was still chauffeured in a Bentley, but when it comes to royalty, the choice of a limousine does mark some economy over a gilded horse-drawn carriage).

In this sense, the Duchess’ demure shoot reveals much about how the institution of monarchy is evolving and, with this, how the clothes royals wear have to impart more ambiguous and polyvalent messages than those worn by their predecessors. In an age when the parliamentary state was still in its infancy, royalty could dress for distinction, but this is much less acceptable in a constitutional monarchy and during a time when globalisation and technology have levelled traditional social and political hierarchies. And yet, as much as royalty is increasingly cast as being inclusive and ‘the same as the rest of us’ – to borrow Alexandra Shulman’s phrase and to reference the recent spate of social media and television performances Britain’s royals have participated in – there is still a desire, even expectation, for members of the royal family to dress in a way that reflects the fact that the head of their family, and our country, rules by God’s grace.

For my part, I think I would have been more open about these interesting paradoxes, which are probably a major reason why the allure of monarchy endures, and presented ‘Kate’ and the ‘Duchess’ – trench coat and tiara – in adjacent images to show how the different sides of royalty can be ‘worn’ by one person, as they always have been. This approach would have been more convincing than the sequence of polyglot images that awkwardly combine suede and sapphire and blur the distinction between conduct and character, which the Duchess of Cambridge – and British royals more generally – have been so adept at delineating through their considered clothing choices.

[i] L. Jones, ‘Is Kate auditioning to be the catalogue queen?’ http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3567529/Duchess-Vogue-cover-star-LIZ-JONES-dares-say-s-bit-Boden.html#ixzz49fRp9qzd.  Accessed: 23 May 2016.

[ii] H. Minn, ‘Kate Middleton wears Topshop and Zara on royal tour of India with Prince William’, http://www.ok.co.uk/celebrity-news/528904/kate-middleton-wears-topshop-zara-india-royal-tour. Accessed: 26 May 2016.

Eternally Fashionable Istanbul

During the Easter holidays – which seem a very long time ago now – I visited Istanbul, a city that first captured my imagination and sparked my historical curiosity when I studied the Byzantine empire at university. Istanbul is a city of enormous contrasts, which befits its great size; it is simultaneously modern and old, creative and conservative, friendly and foreboding. It is no wonder, then, that the city, its people and its past, has long provided inspiration for the fashion industry.

The Chora Church, or more specifically the Church of the Holy Redeemer in the Fields, is located in the Edirnekapi district of Istanbul. Constructed during the fifth century, the church was incorporated into the enormous walls that were built to protect the city during the reign of Emperor Theodosius II between 402 and 450. The architecture of the church was much changed in the years that followed and what survives today is the product of works undertaken between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. It was during the latter phase of architectural renovation, in the early fourteenth century, that the church’s interior was decorated with a series of illuminated murals and mosaics from the Old Testament.

Enter the church today, however, and you may justifiably wonder whether you are stepping back into a medieval past or viewing a contemporary fashion installation. The clothed saints, bejewelled and resplendent in their boldly coloured robes, anticipate the styles of Christian Lacroix (1987) Hussein Chalayan (2002), Vivienne Westwood (2013) and Dolce & Gabbana (2014).

The medieval period is often regarded as a time before fashion because the clothed silhouette was concealed by swathes of fabric that made men and women, rich and poor, look much alike. Belts were one of the few means of giving tabards a body-like shape before buttons and aiguillettes were commonplace. And yet, it was probably because of the ubiquity of tabards or cloaks that encouraged people to seek sartorial distinction through other means, chiefly the colour, texture and ornamentation of their dress. The desire to make similar looking garments distinctive actually made medieval dress remarkably creative and, for today’s tourists and consumers, very appealing.

Interview: Past Perfect

Last year, I was interviewed by Christopher Mielke of CEU Medieval Radio about my research into medieval material culture. The programme, which aired last week, can be listened to below.

westwood

Chris and I roam widely, and consider everything from saints to sustainable fashions, jewellery to hairstyles, and pointy shoes to the contemporary catwalk collections of Vivienne Westwood that were influenced by a book of illuminated medieval manuscripts.

Have a listen…

 

The Sheep At Wolf Hall

The BBC’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning novels – Wolf Hall and Bringing Up The Bodies – has won critical acclaim in the press, but I’ve spoken with many people who are less than convinced about this slow-moving drama that is figuratively and often very literally dark. Wolf Hall is certainly one of the more compelling series on British television at the moment, but amidst the praise there have been repeated murmurings to the effect that the leading characters and their clothes are just a little bit bland. To make a metaphor of the courtiers’ taunt towards Henry VIII’s mistress, there is a sense that everything is as flat as Anne Bolelyn’s chest.

In many respects the BBC’s Tudor court is spot on for today. It presents the leading public figures as cautious egoists, who crave direction and validation from aids, advisors and lawyers, chief among them Thomas Cromwell. The documentary re-runs of David Starkey that we watched at school, along with the glamorised Hollywood histories that hopelessly muddled chronologies, have little prepared us for such striking political contemporaneity. In his portrayal of Henry VIII, Damien Lewis deliberately sought to avoid the ‘womanising, syphilitic, bloated, genocidal Elvis character’ that has become engrained in the nation’s consciousness.[i] Lewis’ Tudor Titan is presented in a more sympathetic, even human, light. There is merit in this interpretation and approach, for many historians now acknowledge that Henry VIII’s riding accident in 1536, which left him temporarily unconscious and with an ulcerated leg that caused intolerable pain for the remainder of his life, affected his character and rule. That said, the king’s ‘Elvis’ persona did not balloon from nothing. In his youth there were signs of who, and what, Henry could become.

The artful aggression of Henry VIII was shown most strikingly in his elaborate, embroidered and bejewelled clothing. The ability and significance of Tudor dress to demarcate social status is used to great effect by Hilary Mantel in her novels. She contrasts the increasing luxury of Thomas Cromwell’s wardrobe, to demonstrate his political and social ascendancy, with the sartorial impoverishment of that belonging to Cardinal Wolsey, to signal his eclipse. In the BBC’s re-formulation of Mantel’s tale, much of this crucial clothing detail has been lost.

Inevitably, perhaps, it was the show’s diminutive codpieces that most disappointed viewers and the verifiers of historical accuracy. Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator of Royal Historic Palaces, expressed her satisfaction with the series’ authenticity, but lamented the men’s small fabric appendages, which were apparently scaled down so as to avoid confusing American audiences.[ii] But circumscribed codpieces are not the only sartorial cut-back. More generally, the dress of Lewis’ Henry VIII is demure. In some scenes it is barely distinguishable from that of the aristocrats in his orbit.

Documentary and record evidence reveals young King Henry frequently wore bright and conspicuous apparel. In 1515, the Venetian ambassador described the twenty-five year old monarch wearing a striped doublet of crimson and white satin. His hose were scarlet. His purple velvet mantle was lined with white satin and hung with garlands of gold.[iii] Evidence from the royal household accounts suggests Henry liked to wear contrasting colours and textures. He favoured ”fresh colours’, including yellow, white, orange and carnation.’[iv] Green, a colour associated with youthfulness and verve, was also popular.[v] Darker colours, not least black which retained its luxury associations from the medieval period, were worn frequently, but as dress historian Maria Hayward observes, ‘when embellished with ornate self-coloured embroidery, guards, slashing and passementerie it was far from understated.’[vi]

The clothes of flat-chested Anne were also a pale imitation of what this fashion trendsetter had actually worn. Her wardrobe suffered because historical authenticity was sacrificed so as not to alienate television audiences. Whilst Anne did wear a white cloth of gold robe for her ceremonial entry into London on 31 May 1533, at her coronation on 1 June she wore crimson and purple velvet.[vii] The white gown that Anne wears for her coronation in the BBC’s adaptation is a nod to contemporary clothing conventions that did not become widespread until the nineteenth century.

There is reason and merit in highlighting the many parallels that exist between the past and present, but as clothing has always been such a strong indication of social values and people’s roles, the muddles and misconceptions that arise when contemporary clothing notions are used to inform the dress of sixteenth-century people are great. If codpieces seem strange to a modern audience, that’s because they should.

[i] Anon, ‘The good side of Henry VIII’, The Week (17 January, 2015), 10.

[ii] Anon., ‘They got the spoons right – but what about the codpieces?’ The Week (17 January, 2015), 28.

[iii] M. Haywood, Dress at the Court of King Henry VIII (Leeds, 2007), 2.

[iv] Ibid., 11.

[v] Ibid., 121.

[vi] Ibid., 11.

[vii] A. Weir, Henry VIII: King and Court (London, 2001), 339-340.

Stil in die Stadt (im Herbst)

Berlin. The novelist and playwright Honoré Balzac thought it boring. The Marxist leader Rosa Luxemburg considered it ‘cold’ and ‘tasteless’.[i] Adolf Hitler welcomed the Allied bombing of the city in the 1940s because its destruction would facilitate the construction of Albert Speer’s gargantuan structures for Germania, the new capital of Große Deutschland.[ii] In the nineteenth century, another visitor to the city, German novelist Theodor Fontane, focused his criticism on the Berliners themselves, whom he regarded as ordinary and mediocre. In 1963, American President JFK would proclaim that he was a Berliner as a gesture of political solidarity, but Fontane would never have considered himself such, however figuratively.

The publication of several books on German street style would suggest the country, its chief cities, and Berlin especially, are creative rather than conventional, populated with trendsetters and not mere imitators. On previous visits to Berlin, I would have doubted this, as I would for any city today. If commentators question the existence of clothing trends because fashions, despite changing so frequently, are increasingly homogenised and androgynous, is it really possible that an area in Western Europe just under 900km2 could posses its own sartorial culture?

A short visit to Berlin last week provided an opportunity for me to give the city’s style more attention. I had to look hard. Berliners in Autumn are dressed as practically and darkly as the buildings they inhabit. In part this is understandable, for the city at this time of year is cold; to walk along the Spree can be bracing. But practicality and darkness does not mean drab. For, like their newly erected buildings, street style is all about the detail. Berliners dress in contrasting textures and use flashes of bright colour to add light-hearted and personal touches to their rugged and weatherproof clothing. This point was particularly evident with footwear. Boots and trainers with buckles and bold coloured laces were commonplace; a particularly heavy-duty pair of red boots distracted me from the sixteenth-century paintings in the Gemaldgalerie. Neck scarves were equally evocative, as were the glasses, although continental specs are invariably more interesting than those available in the UK, so this was not so surprising. More interesting was a seemingly unintentional contemporary twist on lederhosen (or plus fours?): high socks, or body-hugging leggings, worn under three-quarter length trousers. In the Gemaldgalerie – clearly the place for stylish Berliners – one young boy wore green trousers over blue socks and with accompanying blue trainers. Double piercings on the lower lip or a single piercing of the septum were common sights among young Berliners: the look was at once rebellious and, due to the paired piercing, ascetical.

In his latest book, Berlin: Imagine a City, travel writer Rory Maclean analyses the complex and frequently tortuous history of Berlin through the lives of twenty-three of its former inhabitants from the Middle Ages into modernity. He describes how the city’s past caused Frederick II to exchange the pursuit of wisdom for war;[iii] chemist Fritz Halber to preference state loyalty over the love of his wife, who shot herself when his gases were first used during the First World War;[iv] Marlene Dietrich to be renounced by the city of her birth because her cinematic performances exposed truths too painful for Berliners, and other Germans, to confront.[v] Maclean seeks to explain, on both a personal and historical level, the city’s grizzled and grey appearance, its apparent conformity and stoicism, on the one hand, and its enduring appeal and ‘underground’ allure, on the other. He suggests the demeanour of Berliners has been socialised through the city’s short (it has no Roman remains, unlike most European capitals) and brutal (it has been invaded, razed, rebuilt and divided) history. If the experience of The Thirty Years’ War and Habsburg ruled conditioned Berliners (and Germans, more generally) to obey at a relatively early stage in the city’s (and country’s) development, political disruption and wartime deprivation instilled a ‘Devil May Care’ spirit that manifests itself, subtlety, in laconic displays of individuality.

As I waited at Schöneberg airport to return to London and watched passengers alight from the aircraft that I would soon be boarding, I struggled to identify the likely nationality of the people: were they English, German, American? But as I looked, and applied the knowledge that I had gained from previous days of sartorial study, those whom I suspected to be Berliners stood out more clearly. On the face of it, Berlin dress is as ordinary and mediocre as Theodor Fontane once considered its people, but as ever in fashion, first looks are deceptive.

[i] R. Maclean, Berlin: Imagine A City (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014), 172.

[ii] F. Spotts, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (London: Pimlico, 2002), 352.

[iii] Maclean, Berlin, 41-51.

[iv] Ibid., 134-49.

[v] Ibid., 199-215.

Modern Vintage

Sophisticated. Simple. Retro. Wearable. These are some of the words that journalists have used to describe the catwalk fashions on display this week in Paris, Milan… and Salisbury. From Dior to Dolce & Gabbana, Giamba to Prada, the styles of Spring/Summer 2015 have been conspicuous for their strong silhouettes and attention to detail. There is an emphasis on sensible sartorialism, where practicality and plushiness harmonize. As Jo Ellison, fashion editor for the Financial Times, observes, fashion designers have got real.

Salisbury’s vintage-inspired fashion show, set against the backdrop of its thirteenth-century cathedral, a gothic masterpiece constructed in a single building phase that lasted just under 40 years, provided the perfect parallel to these continental collections. On one level, the flagship event of Salisbury’s annual Fashion Week could be seen as a subtle parody of how the fashion industry has come to rely on historical props and places for legitimacy. The latest round of international fashion shows emphasized how designers’ practice of dipping into fashion’s past for distinction has become routine. In Paris, for example, Raf Simons’ presentation for Dior was housed within a mirrored box in the Cour Carree, the Louvre’s oldest courtyard that has formally played host to Louis Vuitton shows. Simons’ collection was replete with historical references, chiefly from the eighteenth century according to Guardian writer Jess Cartner-Morley.

Brilliant though it was, the timing of Salisbury’s vintage event was almost certainly coincidental. The atmosphere within the Cathedral was one of celebration rather than criticism and condescension. The bursts of spontaneous applause that engulfed the models as they meandered across the medieval pavement in patent stilettos between tables dressed with 1950s china (all supplied by local shop, Beulah’s Attic), not to mention the striking effect of the strong shapes, rich colours and bold textiles against the grey Chilmark stone, engendered a profound connection – rarely witnessed at fashion events – between the sitters and the strutters. Tables buzzed as people recalled memories – to varying degrees hilarious, harrowing and humbling – of weddings, great aunts, children and first loves. The event clarified, far better than any sociological study, why former vogues remain relevant and prevalent.

In an era when the majority of clothes were still made or finished by hand, and with austerity measures providing a unique stimulant for clothing creativity, people’s dress was practical, personal and possessing of a genuine degree of quixotism that did not detract from its quality. No wonder, then, that contemporary designers and the companies they create for have tried hard to understand and utilise the appeal of retro raiment. If the joie de vivre within the Cathedral could have been distilled, branded and sold, the fashion industry would have found an elixir that would truly enable them to create clothes to die for.

Child’s Prey: The Darker Side Of The Drawings On Our Dress

In (UK) Esquire’s latest Black Book, Johnny Davis claims ‘menswear is at the tail end of its love affair with dandyism.’[i] It is therefore apposite, he suggests, that his interviewee, the sartorial minimalist Carlo Brandelli whose tailoring champions opulent asceticism, is returning to Savile Row. Naturally, Brandelli agrees. He believes the uncertainty that men felt following the 2008 economic crash is fading and so, consequently, should their need to wear fussy and fustian fashions from the past. Whilst Davis and Brandelli are probably not alone in hoping that menswear will soon hit the refresh button and emerge from the sartorial safety of the 1920s and 1980s, the latest trend, which sees the incorporation of childhood motifs into men’s dress, suggests male shoppers are not yet ready to abandon the comfort of clothing’s past.

gentleman hankielores

Cartoon-inspired clothing is burgeoning rather than booming, but there is already diversity in the designs that purveyors, chiefly of traditional men’s requisites, have conceived. In February, West Yorkshire-based fabric manufacturer Huddersfield Fine Worsteds launched its Linings II collection.[ii] Possible suit innards include skulls and roses and cartoon word art, reminiscent of the original Batman television series, in sixties-style tones: ‘BAM’, ‘CRASHHH!!’, ‘BLAM’, ‘SPLASH’. For sartorialists wishing to recall the politics of the decade that swung, another lining option includes the slogans ‘ALL WE NEED IS LOVE’ and ‘MAKE LOVE NOT WAR’. If this does not appeal, in May, heritage shirt-maker Turnball & Asser will launch a limited edition range of men’s handkerchiefs featuring one of British television’s most fashion-conscious animated characters, Mr Benn.[iii] The four designs will be available in strictly limited quantities of fifty and cost £65 each. Turnball & Asser’s collaboration with Mr Benn’s creator David McKee follows a well-received animated short for the online retailer Mr Porter in which the dapperly drawn dresser eschews fancy dress costume in preference for a pair of O’Keefe patent monk straps.

The idea of depicting illustrated children’s icons on ‘grown-up’ dress is not new, which probably won’t surprise you: remember Disney’s 101 Dalmatian prints on Castelbajac’s Autumn/Winter collection in 2011? But the frequency with which these designs are now being used prompts me to ponder, especially as the drawings in vogue are mainly from the nineties. This chronological clustering of cartoon characters was nicely illustrated by Michele Moricci’s depiction of six nineties’ animations, all grown up and attired in designer ware corresponding to the various shows they were supposedly attending during New York Fashion Week: Lisa Simpson in Marc Jacobs, Beavis and Butthead in Hood By Air and Jeremy Scott, respectively, and Daria in Prabal Gurung.[iv]

sp-7

So what’s afoot? Four factors clearly play a part. Firstly, brand extension. Popular children’s characters have always been adept at spawning myriad merchandising opportunities. In the case of clothing, they are an expeditious way of revving up new collections and reaching out to new buyers, specifically those who recall, and have an attachment to, the cartoon figures depicted. That said, the ‘need’ to possess umpteen different products featuring the same hero or heroine is probably more keenly felt by children than adults and does not work so well with clothes, I imagine. Moreover, cartoon appeal appears to diminish with age, especially with regards to adult dress, which is often minimal and an-iconic, although Prada’s Spring/Summer 2014 collection conspicuously bucks this trend with uncompromising murals of women’s faces on its knitwear and dresses.

Prada-SS14-Womens-Adv.-Campaign_21-588x392

A second factor is the growing appreciation for fashion illustration, championed in February by Colin McDowell and a subject about which there are now a number of academic and generalist publications.[v] This could be creating a context in which shoppers are beginning to value art in fashion, although this is hard to judge. At present, art-based fashion remains niche. Available products, even Hermès’ bright and bold silk scarves and Louis Vuitton’s third season of neckwear produced through artistic collaboration, remain serious, nonfigurative and prohibitively expensive for many people.

The third factor is the technological developments that facilitate design partnerships and dissolve boundaries between the creative industries. But here again there is an explanatory gap, for fashion houses are hardly novices when it comes to creative coupling. Think Gucci and Fiat, Adidas and Rick Owens, Oliver Peoples and Maison Kitsuné, etc., etc. Significant though they are, the bottom line is that the attractiveness of childhood cartoons, the growing appreciation for fashion-related art and the technological innovations that foster creative cooperation and enterprise cannot fully account for why children’s characters, generally from the nineties, have become prevalent.

The fourth factor, the present nineties renaissance, which has spawned indiscriminate crazes for baseball caps, denim and back packs and encouraged a new appreciation for Nirvana’s lead singer Kurt Kobain, who committed suicide twenty years ago this month, gets us tantalisingly close to the issue, but why should it be that fashion brands, and other brands, are making specific overtures to customers in their thirties and forties, people who grew up with Alan West as Batman and Mr Benn?

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Following Simon Reynolds[vi] (if you are more of a generalist reader) or Fredric Jameson (if you have a penchant for the academic and esoteric[vii]), it might be argued that our present nineties love-up is an example of how moribund popular culture has become. Saturated by capital, our lives follow the ebb and flow of the markets. Seeking to maximise profits, companies devise marketing campaigns that will induce us to part with our incomes in the quickest way possible. Invoking much-loved cartoon characters at a time when people are feeling weary and confused because of the economic down-turn could easily be sold as a sure-fire way to keep what is perhaps the most financially vulnerable and image-conscious age bracket spending. Turnball & Asser might decry this polemical postulation and argue that their handkerchiefs are a bit of fun, that there is nothing to read into them at all. This could be so, although it is interesting that their current limited edition range of hankies is based around the theme of the mid-life crisis; cue four designs featuring, variously, a suit-clad man flying planes, driving fast cars, motorbikes and motorboats, always accompanied with female beauties and a brolly.

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As ever, humour contains a kernel of truth. Whilst Turnball & Asser’s handkerchiefs are not the output of some money-making behemoth, they hint at how pervasive financial considerations have become in the conception, creation and consumption of fashion products. It seems hard to believe that the fantastical image of an armour-clad Mr Benn riding a fire-breathing dragon could convey such hard reality, but men’s continuing need for socio-economic reassurance, and companies’ inevitable willingness to supply commercial comforts to satisfy this, plausibly explains the majority of recent menswear trends that Carlo Brandelli wishes to be rid of. The shock treatment that his austere attire provides might, therefore, prove to be the most effective cure for men’s historically-centred sartorial sickness.

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[i] J. Davis, ‘The Modernist: Carlo Brandelli returns to Savile Row’, Esquire: The Big Black Book (Spring/Summer 2014), 59.

[ii] www.hfwltd.com.

[iii] www.turnballandasser.co.uk.

[iv] T. Smith, ‘New York Fashion Week: Michele Moricci revives 90s Cartoon Character Outfits’. www.designyoutrust.com/2013/09/new-york-fashion-week-michele-moricci-revives-90s-cartoon-character-outfits/. Accessed: 7-iv-2014.

[v] C. McDowell, ‘Could Illustration Offer an Antitode to Fashion Banality?’ www.businessoffashion.com/2014/02/colins-column-illustration-offer-antidote-fashion-banality.html. Accessed: 4-ii-2014.

[vi] S. Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past (London, 2011).

[vii] F. Jameson, ‘Culture and Finance Capital’, Critical Inquiry, 24:1 (1997), 246-65.

Headwear: Facial Masks & McQueen

A 1960 Parisian Epiphany party was the scene of momentary embarrassment for the Duke of Windsor. The only monarch to voluntarily abdicate the English throne, the Duke looked pained as the moment of coronation approached for two of the bon ton revellers. Apparently oblivious to her husband’s anxiety, Duchess Wallis Simpson was acutely aware of the significance of the toy regalia; when a sequinned crown was placed upon her head, she rasped the lines of Shakespeare’s insomniac monarch, Henry IV: ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.’[i]

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This vignette from the diaries of Cecil Beaton reveals much about the sociological and sartorial importance of the head, not to mention the scale of the constitutional headache created by Edward VIII’s heartache. Uniquely prominent as the highest point of the human body and the receptacle of the brain, the head has long been signalled out for special treatment, for good and ill, in pleasure and in pain.[ii] With horns and haloes the head has provided the clearest means of distinguishing the damned from the divine, literally and figuratively. The same is true today, although the signifiers of good and evil are more likely to be corporate brands emblazoned across a baseball cap or embroidered on a beanie, than ossified outgrows or ethereal illuminations.

Uneasy Heads

In many cultures figures of authority, from royalty to warriors, have worn distinctive head coverings to designate their singular status. For people possessing an ego disproportionate to their lesser social standing, milliners have long provided a suitable solution in the form of hats that can be as high and wide as their wearer’s improbable ambition. It is no coincidence that millinery commissions increased after the economic downturn, as people wanted to boost their confidence by enhancing their (head’s) physical size.[iii] And what holds for the lofty is also true of the low. Felons, guilty of the most heinous of crimes, were often sentenced to death by beheading, with their decapitated heads prominently displayed to deter other ne’er-do-wells (think, Game of Thrones). Certain Christian communities beheaded the bodies of suicide victims to condemn those who had renounced God’s gift of life (think, Kingdom of Heaven). Earlier this year, sectarian violence culminated in the beheading of Syrian Christians.

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The Cover Story

But for all of the effort that goes into garnishing the head, human communities across the world and throughout time have probably spent more time covering it up. So vital is the head, for what it contains as much as for what it conveys through the eyes, mouth and hair (facial and cranial), that people have felt the need to conceal it; an act that makes the physical and symbolic significance of the head all the greater. One reason for concealing the head is protection, whether from bad weather and putrid smells, or from society more generally, as a mask makes its wearer anonymous through the obfuscation of their identity (think, any Marvel or DC Comics film). In pre-modern societies, Christoph Heyl has shown how masks could be a form of punishment, torturing and exposing the guilty through the metal contraption they wore (think, Man in the Iron Mask).[iv] The fact that head coverings can simultaneously hide and highlight a person’s identity means they have also been worn for pleasure. ‘By means of deliberately obscuring one’s own identity, relatively unrestrained and even new forms of social interaction [can] become possible,’ particularly in parks and theatres, ‘where unacceptable forms of behaviour were regarded as legitimate’ (think, Eyes Wide Shut).[v] The enduring appeal of the masquerade is undoubtedly linked to the enjoyment that people derive from being able to adopt a different persona when their head is partially or totally concealed.

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Face Off

Couturiers are increasingly cognisant of the sartorial potential of the head, or rather, are probably following in the irreverent and iconoclastic footsteps of Lee Alexander McQueen, whose sensuous severity engendered garments in which the head was frequently covered in a fencing-style mask.[vi] It is difficult to determine the significance of McQueen’s head coverings, which featured prominently in many of his collections between Spring/Summer 1995 and Autumn/Winter 2009. Sarah Burton’s current Autumn/Winter collection for Alexander McQueen, influenced by the ecclesiastical wardrobe, has continued to conjure with this sartorial topos, with the fence-style mask reincarnated in its most bejewelled form yet. Throughout his career, McQueen was intrigued by various themes that would give his head covering symbolic importance, not least death and consumerism. He was also keen to ensure that the women he dressed became ‘frightening subject[s]’, rather than ‘objects of fear’.[vii]

When you see a woman wearing McQueen, there’s a certain hardness to the clothes that makes her look powerful. It kind of fends people off.

 

It’s almost like putting armour on a woman. It’s a very psychological way of dressing.[viii]

The incorporation of elaborate head coverings in collctions from designers as diverse as Givenchy, Thom Browne and Gareth Pugh suggests there are general reasons for this sartorial headwind, even if McQueen’s sartorial shadow looms large.[ix]

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Heads Up

The interest in headwear chimes with couturiers’ recent reverly in the past. Hats and face coverings were once ubiquitous and had an important role in definining people’s social position and gender, particularly in the West. The material, colour and shape of headwear, which could often be outlandish and commensurately expensive, helped to place people within social and gendered tiers. Today, the use of historic motifs to revitalise homogeneous garments is part of a wider move by consumers and couturiers to pursue individuality through acccessoring. The return of an accessory as significant as the hat would therefore be a boon to all. The hat’s association with rank and gender may also be important, and potentially reassuring, in light of the social upheaveals wrought by the economic downturn and the continued questions about the role of Man. Wearing a hat can suggest disposable income, sartorial boldness and confidence in one’s social position and gender.[x]

We could speculate at length how Lee Alexander McQueen would have responded to designers’ widespread use of headwear. It is likely that he would approve Burton’s subtle reinterpretation of his ‘fencing mask’ with pearls and embroidery in the current collection, but I wonder if he would have gone further, along the lines of Damien Hirst’s ‘For the Love of God’?[xi] What is certain is that McQueen would have continued to reference the sociological and sartorial significance of the head in a style unimaginable to many and inimitable by all.

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[i] H. Vickers, Cecil Beaton: The Authorised Biography (London, 1985), 452.

[ii] C. McDowell, The Anatomy of Fashion: Why We Dress The Way We Do (London, 2013), 52-57.

[iii] L. Foreman, ‘Head Lines’, Financial Times: Life & Arts (Saturday/Sunday, 16/17 February 2013), 4.

[iv] C. Heyl, ‘When They Are Veyl’d on Purpose to be Seene: The Metamorphosis of the Mask in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century London’, Body Dressing, ed. J. Entwistle & E. Wilson (Oxford, 2001), 122-23.

[v] Ibid., 121.

[vi] K. Knox, Alexander McQueen: Genius Of A Generation (London, 2010), 21.

[vii] C. Evans, ‘Desire and Dread: Alexander McQueen and the Contemporary Femme Fatale’, Body Dressing, 206.

[viii] A. Bolton, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2011), 60.

[ix] Trends/Forecasts: The Headwear Issue. http://www.fashion156.com/issues/the-headwear-issue/trends/forecast-2/forecast-concealment/. Accessed: 17 August 2013.

[xi] T. Sutcliffe, ‘For the Love of God: A £50m work of art’, The Independent (Saturday, 2 June 2007), 1-2; D. Hirst, For the Love of God: The Making of The Diamond Skull (London, 2007); ‘Hirst’s Red Nose skullduggery’, Evening Standard (Friday, 22 February 2013).

Women’s Style Through Time

The majority of my posts focus on menswear, but occasionally it pays to make an exception. On 27 September I am hosting a Fashion Through The Ages catwalk show as part of Salisbury Fashion Week. The show will focus exclusively on female fashion, so this got me thinking about the major themes in women’s dress…

 

It is often remarked that men are deterred by fashion because they find the constant cycle of clothing trends discomforting. Men prefer style, which exists, somehow timeless and protected, behind a sartorial hermetic seal. Women, on the other hand, relish the seasonal cycling of clothes. The length and weight of American Vogue’s September issue – 902pp, 1.8kg – may bear this out. But as so often with matters of appearance, looks can be deceptive. For all the talk of transition and seasonal transformation in women’s clothing, changes in style are really variations of a norm. If women’s fashion is examined over the longue durée, developments in dress can be whittled down to four themes.

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More Revealing

Between the fifth and nineteenth centuries, social conventions decreed that women should conceal their bodies beneath folds and layers of fabric suspended from deforming structures of bone, leather, metal and wood. At extremes, the female body became gigantic (à la wide-bottomed mantua of the eighteenth century) and minute (à la small-waisted dresses, emphasised by enlarged sleeves, of the nineteenth century). In contrast, contemporary female dress is more revealing, both figuratively and literally. Today, the majority of women have greater freedom to express their personality through the colour and cut of their clothing, irrespective of their wealth and religious belief. In the West, sculptural clothing designs that enhance a woman’s natural silhouette, along with the loss of layers and length to reveal flesh, make female clothing not only more revealing, but more provocative and demonstrative of a women’s power to attract, to assert her authority (over men and women) and to be an individual. Few designers understood this better than Alexander McQueen, whose visceral creations blend with the body and form a second skin that are sensuous and gloriously frank.

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More Accessorising

The power and provocation of female dress is increasingly heightened by the careful selection of accessories. In the past, clothing accoutrements and body adornments were worn by wealthy women to proclaim a social position that was at once privileged and circumscribed by their marital status. Today, women, like men, clamour to purchase designer bags, jewels and watches to display their independence and immutability in the face of social unease caused by economic instability. More ubiquitous, female accessories are also much bigger. The majority of women almost certainly own bags that are at least twice as big as those carried by their mothers; don bracelets that have longer and chunkier links and wear rings, made from a diverse array of materials, with bezels that are big in every dimension. As clothing styles have become increasingly homogenised, these enlarged adornments play a key role in signifying women’s collective and singular femininity.

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More Androgynous

Homogeneous clothing, a product of industrialised manufacturing skilfully marketed through popular media, blights both sexes and distinction in dress is now hard to achieve, despite the revealing nature of accessorised outfits. But it is not just that one man or one woman looks like any other member of their sex, it is that both sexes look increasingly alike, as women borrow from men and men borrow from women. The development of new leisure activities following the industrial revolution established a greater need for specialised sportswear regardless of sex. Androgyny in dress is also a consequence of increasing social equality, where men and women increasingly work and play alongside each other in identical roles. Or could our enduring interest in gender-bending performers, from David Bowie to Lady GaGa, suggest that androgyny appeals to the homo-erotic side in all of us; men who like the gamine look and girls who like beautiful boys…

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Consistently Uncomfortable

Sartorial similitude and the desire to achieve distinction in dress would also account for the one constant in women’s fashion: discomfort. If a misogynistic paternalism once decreed that women wear restrictive clothing to reflect and enforce their social limitations, the ability to dress more freely also hides snares for contemporary women, who pronounce their femininity, and try to appear distinct, by wearing signifiers that once proclaimed their subordination. A majority of women wear debilitating footwear for the much of the working day and carry (large) bags suspended from their wrist or arm. Margaret Thatcher revealed how the female bag could be transformed into a symbol of feminine strength – the verb ‘to handbag’ exists because of her – but her posthumous sartorial fame shows how women still endure psychological and physical pain through clothing choices that enable them to attain roles perceived as successful and meaningful by society. As in the past, so women in the present continue to be judged on their clothing decisions, from their height of the heels to the length of their skirts. The history of women’s dress reveals that constant change, far from eroding continuity, can compound it.

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