Back Catalogue

‘Unprecedented’ is a word much in use at the moment. As the realities and worries of the Coronavirus spread, people the world over are being encouraged, even forced, to make fundamental changes in the way that they live. For many of us, this means spending a lot more time within the four walls we call home.

Adversity is frequently the springboard of innovation and across the education sector, individuals and organisations in the private and public sectors have been quick to make learning resources available to students and teachers, and to those with time on their hands now that physical socialising is stigmatised and stymied.

Whilst I ponder how best to make some of my lectures and teaching materials available, a start is to highlight the media I have been involved with that is already in the public domain:

Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II: Britain’s Golden Queens. In this Channel 5 documentary, I analyse the imagery and dress of Britain’s two Elizabeths to show the remarkable similarities that connect these two women and their reigns that are over 400 years apart.

The Magnificence of Marginality. My TEDxSherborne talk focuses on the life of mathematician Alan Turing and argues that people marginalised in our communities often have more to contribute to the betterment of our lives than we may initially think.

Heritage: A Paradox and a Potential. Here, I consider the enduring appeal of heritage for companies and consumers within the luxury industry, and how to create it in a contemporary context.

The Siege of Kenilworth Castle. In a BBC Radio 3 series on The Rise and Fall of the British Castle, I tell the story of the longest siege in British history, which involves fancy dress costume and a dead whale.

King Henry III and the Communication of Power. Against the backdrop of King John’s ignominy and the political challenge posed by Magna Carta, this Gresham College lecture considers how Henry III used art, architecture and apparel to exalt his authority and to communicate his divinely-ordained status on a scale never previously seen in England.

Dress: Fancy – a new podcast

At the beginning of September, Lucy Clayton and I launched Dress: Fancy, a podcast that explores the popularity, prevalence and power of fancy dress. By looking at the social significance and psychology of people in costume, the series explores why fancy dress has been a constant theme throughout history, sometimes as an act of celebration or escapism, and on other occasions as a form of protest. The first four episodes are available on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. A summary of the topics considered so far is below. 

Have a listen, and if you like, please leave a review or comment.

 

Episode 1: Who’s Laughing Now? – Fancy Dress in Protest. 

In the first of a new series that looks at the social significance and psychology of dressing up, Lucy Clayton and cultural historian Dr Benjamin Wild discuss the global prevalence of fancy dress protests. From slogan covered T-shirts to city-wide marches, pussy hats to power aprons, an increasing number of people are getting creative with costume to give voice to opinions they feel are not being heard. Why are concerned, angry, passionate people from around the world taking to their sewing machines and their cities’ streets in ever larger numbers? How and why do protesters use fancy dress to articulate their views? Why is so much time invested to make garments that are worn for just a few hours, and possibly just once? Decide for yourself if costumed protests are more psychological salve or a potent means of preserving our democratic freedoms. Listen.

 

Episode 2: Barbaric Splendour – The Devonshire House Ball, 1897. 

In the second episode of a new series that explores the prevalence, potency and politics of fancy dress costume, Lucy Clayton and cultural historian Dr Benjamin Wild discuss the Devonshire House Ball. Held on 2 July 1897 to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, and during an époque when dressing up was more than just an entertaining occasion, the night-long festivity was extravagant and spectacular. From goddesses to mythic monarchs, the social elite caroused in creative and costly costumes, several of which survive today. Were guests’ clothing choices based on a need for power and authority to demonstrate riches, or a desire to gain social acceptance? How impractical were these works of art, and how much would they cost to make today? Was the lavish display distasteful and vulgar, or exotic and luxurious? You can decide if the Devonshire Ball has earned its place as one of history’s fanciest balls and consider whether anything in the twenty first century comes close to rivalling it. Listen.

 

 

Episode 3: Nazis, Pirates, Tarts – Fancy Dress in Bad Taste. 

Fancy dress costume is inherently unfashionable and frequently in questionable taste. Photographs of authority figures and supposed role models in dubious dress-up regularly appear in newspapers to be excoriated by pundits and public alike. A memorable scene in Bridget Jones’ Diary, which featured Renée Zellweger wearing a Playboy bunny suit to an otherwise dowdy family get-together, will forever identify the British as past masters at donning awkward, astonishing, and inexplicable costume. What is it about fancy dress that encourages people to push the boundaries of humour and tact? Why do people in authority seem to get caught in compromising costume so frequently? Does a fancy dress ‘fail’ in fact reveal a person’s authentic character? And are some subjects simply too sensitive to ever become fancy dress. Contribute to the debate, or simply learn what costumes are best avoided altogether. Listen.

 

Episode 4: Warriors and Wigs – Fancy Dress in Wartime. 

People’s social, political and gendered roles are disrupted by war. Fancy dress costume, which offers escapism and self-reflection by enabling its wearer to become somebody or something else, can mediate these tensions. From women who dressed as men to fight in America’s Civil War, to allied sailors who survived a mid-Atlantic torpedo attack dressed as Nazi officials in WWII, Lucy and Ben consider the harrowing and heartening place of costume in conflicts throughout history. What makes fancy dress prevalent during times of military conflict? How are costumed warriors perceived by their contemporaries? And just what are the costumes warriors wear? Listen.

 

Come Dine With Me

The following article was written for TACK, a newly launched fashion web magazine that I shall be contributing to via my own monthly column.

TACK

Quality is often the first causality when quantity increases. This is certainly true of fashion magazines, which are appearing at a dizzying rate in both soft and hard copy. Whilst I have come across several new titles that I genuinely like, the articles within these publications, if they include anything more than photographs, are really just chewing gum for the brain. Some of the writing that appears between the deluxe paper covers or behind the highly stylized home pages online might sate a small craving that I have for fashion news, and I might even return to the publication later for further grazing, but my hunger for informed, intelligent and thought-provoking analysis on style and culture generally persists.

In a much discussed and retweeted article for the Business Of Fashion, Colin McDowell recently lamented the lack of critical thought in contemporary fashion writing.

Whereas most art forms are kept on their toes by informed commentary, the fashion world has virtually none. No wonder it is currently so unhealthy that the only news that it can proudly muster concerns store openings, profit reports and the continual musical chairs of designer appointments and departures. Never a word about creativity.

McDowell paints an unsettling picture of an industry where the majority of magazine editors are beholden to fashion houses run by capricious designers, who seek to quash critical commentary with speed and spite. The result is a perennial recycling of anodyne platitudes about “New Looks” that confuse consumers and commoditize our culture.

McDowell doesn’t reference the work of Theodor Adorno, his collaborator Max Horkheimer or Guy Debord in his aforementioned article, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they feature in his forthcoming book The Anatomy of Fashion. Influenced by Marxist thought and writing around the start of the Cold War, these sociologists were alarmed at the ease with which people had succumbed to the bright lights and catchy tunes emanating from their television sets and sound systems. Adorno and Debord foresaw the end of society as they knew it, certainly the end of culture. People had become estranged from one another; they lacked critical thought and swooned over objects that the bright lights and catchy tunes had persuaded them to purchase. In the introduction to Dialektik der Aufklärung (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944), Adorno and Horkheimer wrote:

[W]e had set ourselves nothing less than the discovery of why mankind, instead of entering  into a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism.

Adorno and Debord’s bleak message was  amplified by Roland Barthes, a contemporary sociologist who was interested in the way fashion magazines communicated about clothing. Barthes suggested that fashion writing, which labeled something hot or not with varying degrees of subtlety, constructed powerful meanings and evoked connotations that influenced consumer spending. As he wrote at the beginning of Système de la Mode (The Fashion System, 1967):

I open a fashion magazine; I see that two different garments are being dealt with here. The first is the one presented to me as photographed or drawn — it is image-clothing. The second is the same garment, but described, transformed into language; this dress photographed on the right, becomes on the left: a leather belt, with a rose stuck in it, worn above the waist on a soft Shetland dress; this is a written garment.

Similar to McDowell, Adorno, Horkheimer and Debord expressed concern that, along with music and television, popular writing was becoming a vehicle for consumerism: a commercial tool to persuade people to purchase, rather than an independent voice to encourage them to ponder creativity and culture.

Considering the power of the written word in fashion writing, which Barthes was really the first to appreciate, I sincerely hope that McDowell’s clarion call for criticism is heard and acted upon. I’m aware this will take time. Style magazines with the highest circulations have not always maintained the best editorial standards, and the slew of new magazines that purport to cover fashion, art and culture have mostly followed their wayward lead. Many of these newly launched publications court famous names and brands that they tend to feature in photographic essays — an oxymoron if ever there was one. Want-to-be editors are too quick to respond to incipient sartorial trends, seemingly without devoting much thought to the values or voice they wish their journals to espouse.

It might seem as though my argument is morphing into a moan every bit as annoying as a bellyache, but if this means I am heard and get fed, then so be it. I long to feast on a style magazine that leaves me feeling bloated after I have shamelessly devoured it. I want to remember and mull over articles long after I’ve read them the way I would savor a delicious dinner. Unfortunately, until the majority of editors realize that intellectual nourishment is probably more likely to provide interesting and edifying content than vacuous catwalk commentaries and banal blandishments about what to wear, my hunger pangs will persist.

By contributing to TACK, I hope I can offer something of interest to the many people I know who are just as hungry for fashion writing informed by history, literature, philosophy and the arts as I am.

So without further ado, let’s eat — I’m starving!