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.

 

A Rakish Progress: The Image and Influence of David Hockney’s Style

The text of this post is based on a talk I gave at the Royal Academy on Saturday for RA Lates’ ‘A Hockney Happening’.

Before reading further, pause for a few seconds.

Close your eyes and conjure an image David Hockney in your mind.

So, what did your Hockney look like? Probably something like the photograph below. I’m certain you would have got the wave of blonde peroxide hair, perhaps slightly dishevelled, and the thick-rimmed, owl-like glasses. If your mental imagining captured more than Hockney’s face, you may have dressed him in a polka-dot bow tie or a knitted sweater. Bright, contrasting colours would have featured somewhere. If your Hockney had legs and feet, perhaps he was wearing bright socks, white sneakers, or, as below, something more lively.

It is possible that your Hockney was wearing something more formal, perhaps a suit, as in this photograph, below, from 1979, where Hockey is pictured opposite Cecil Beaton. The pair are relaxing in Beaton’s ‘Winter Garden’ (aka conservatory) in Reddish House, Wiltshire. Hockney was staying with Beaton at the time, to draw his portrait for an upcoming feature in British Vogue. The sittings did not start well, for Hockney’s bold style of drawing apparently highlighted Beaton’s wrinkles.[i]

The Hockney of this image looks ‘complete’. He possesses all of what have become leitmotifs of a style of dress that many commentators, including Mr Porter’s Jeremy Langmead, have described as ‘uncontrived’.[ii] But I don’t think this is right, for the Hockney ‘look’ did not have an immaculate birth. It evolved as Hockney’s personal and professional confidence increased, in much the same way that Cecil Beaton’s appearance had done decades before. The clue, I think, is Hockney’s socks. Today, you can choose to buy odd pairs of socks – it’s actually a ‘thing’ – but in the 1970s, this was not an option. If you wanted to wear odd socks, you had to separate the pair yourself. Hockney did this, and he was apparently inspired by poetry to so. As an adult, he recalled the following lines from a poem by Robert Herrick, which reveals much about his interest in juxtaposition and imbalance, a characteristic of his art as much as his appearance:

A sweet disorder in dress

Rekindles in clothes a wantonness.[iii]

Hockney’s brightly coloured raiment looks welcoming, friendly and jolly, but it is no less contrived for this, and I think the socks are the tell. Hockney has succeeded in creating a look of studied indifference that has helped him to become a one-man brand. His resolve to do this is similar to other artists, perhaps notably Jean-Etienne Liotard, whose incongruous appearance in eighteenth-century London – long beard and Turkish-style
clothing – apparently enabled him to charge more for his portraits than rivals, much to their annoyance.[iv]

In 1954, the Hockney look was incipient, as this self-portrait collage shows. Hockney was sixteen and still living in Bradford. Rationing after the Second World War was just coming to an end. Hockney’s early years were therefore probably very grey in both a literal, creative and intellectual sense. The colour of his clothing perhaps reflected a desire for stimulation and dynamism. It may have also been influenced by the second-hand clothes that Hockney’s father purchased from bankrupt estates through the clothing store, Sykes Vintage. Colour aside, the dark hair and large, NHS prescription spectacles do not make Hockney distinctive.

Hockney’s ‘look’ emerged with the dyeing of his hair. Apparently, Hockney and friends from the Royal College of Art saw a Clariol commercial on television that proclaimed ‘Blondes have more fun’.[v] The young artists needed no further encouragement and spent the afternoon dyeing their locks. Next came the glasses. In 1964, whilst driving
through Iowa City, Hockney apparently saw a pair of heavy horn-rimmed glasses in an opticians. He stopped to buy them, ditching his NHS prescription, because he wanted to look more professional.[vi] Hereafter, Hockney began to experiment with his clothing, but it is noteworthy that no matter how bright his outfits became, they were rarely overpowering.[vii] In all that he wore, and wears, there is balance and evidence of curation.

I think this explains why you would have been able to conjure such a clear image of David Hockney in your mind, and, why so many fashion brands and designers have taken inspiration from his wardrobe. For example, Hockney’s Californian colour palette was said to have influenced Osman Yousefzada’s Spring/Summer 2012 collection. In the same season, Bill Gayten, the interim creative director at John Galliano, drew inspiration from Hockney’s ‘Bigger Splash’ (1967). Burberry’s homage to Hockney in 2005 is perhaps the best known catwalk collection to have conjured with his bold use of colour and contrasting textures.[viii] Advice on how to dress like David Hockney has also appeared online, via Mr Porter.

So, the burning question: how can you achieve the Hockney look for yourself? After dyeing his hair, Hockney is said to have imagined London’s Bond Street where everyone had peroxide-blonde locks. Hockney was not so taken with the aesthetic appeal of neon blonde, but he was excited by the fun of dyeing hair and the dramatic results it produced.[ix] It is rare to be able to experience what an individual looks and feels like in his clothes, but for Hockney, this may just be possible, that is, if you are prepared to accept that blondes have more fun…

[i] B.L. Wild, A Life in Fashion: The Wardrobe of Cecil Beaton (London, 2016), 83-86.

[ii] S. Chilvers, ‘Why David Hockney is my all-time style hero’, The Guardian (23 January 2012), https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/jan/23/david-hockney-my-style-hero (accessed: September 2016).

[iii] C. Simon Sykes, Hockney: The Biography, Volume 2 1975-2012 (London, 2014), 146.

[iv] C. Baker, ‘An Artist in the Age of the Enlightenment’, Jean-Etienne Liotard 1702-1789, eds. C. Baker et al. (London, 2016), 18

[v] C. Simon Sykes, Hockney: The Biography, Volume 1 1937-1975 (London, 2011), 97.

[vi] Ibid., 153.

[vii] Ibid., 134, 180; Hockney Vol. 2, 33.

[viii] Chilvers, ‘David Hockney’.

[ix] Hockney Vol. 1, 110.

Unmade Man: Making Sense of the Naked Male Model

Here is a link to a post I initially published with Parisian Gentleman. Following the recent spate of penis pageantry on the catwalk and the clamour of commentators to analyse this new… trend?, I thought I would add my pennyworth (from a historical perspective, of course).

How We Imitate When There’s No One to Copy

 

A couple of week’s ago, I was asked to contribute an article to Sheridan&Co‘s blog. As a global retail design agency, Sheridan&Co are interested in how the means and motivation of consumption are evolving. My article (here) considers the role of imitation in fashion.

[update: I decided to pursue my ideas on this subject further. My extended musings can be read in: ‘Imitation in Fashion: Further Reflections on the work of Thorstein Veblen and Georg Simmel’, Fashion, Style and Popular Culture, 3:3 (October, 2016), pp. 281-294.]

 

Fresh Fashion: Clothes & Cleanliness

 

‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’, except when it comes to your wardrobe. According to a recent article in The Guardian, many clothing companies suggest denim jeans should be washed infrequently, if at all. Good reasons exist for this socially dubious advice. In particular, frequent washing breaks down the denim fibres, leading to a loss of structure and colour. Similar advice is offered for tailored suits; I have always been advised to clean my jacket and trousers with a clothes brush and to remove stubborn stains with warm, lightly soapy water. Dry cleaning, which bundles clothes into a fabric-frazzling chemical mix, should be avoided because it meshes the structure of the fabric and causes more dirt to get trapped, beginning a truly vicious cycle of corrosive cleaning.

Curiously, modern dilemmas regarding the frequency of a wardrobe wash down parallel those of the past. It is paradoxical that technological developments and more functional clothing have not necessarily simplified the cleaning process for all of the items in our wardrobe. That fashion and freshness have not always elided is today exacerbated by the revival of vintage vogues, which may require special cleaning treatment, and the increased popularity of certain fabrics and textiles once deemed outmoded, as in the case of tweed, or taboo, as in the case of fur.

Suffering for your style is therefore not just about physical discomfort. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, for example, the ruff was one of the more popular, most expensive and ill-suited of items for regular washing. The complex arrangement of pleats that formed the ruff’s distinctive and highly desirable shape required starch to keep them aloft. A damp atmosphere, let alone water, would cause them to sag. Some of the most elaborate ruffs and lace could cost as much as a luxury sports car would today, so washing was a careful and much-considered process. Of course, regular washing as we understand it today did not really exist in this period. Other chores – land cultivation and food preparation, for example – could be considered more important than washing and soap was commonplace only from the eighteenth century. That said, attention the sartorial trendsetter Beau Brummell received for advocating white linens in the nineteenth century implies his attention to laundry was still somewhat atypical. Washing days became the norm only in the nineteenth century, the same period in which the notions of clean living and Christian sobriety were conjoined.

Of course, the no-wash rule does not mean that garments are not maintained. Over the years, I have gathered various innovative cleaning tips for clothes that should be washed infrequently, although not all of these are useful or sanitary. One of my favourite tips provides an effective remedy for men who get blood on their shirt collar after shaving – simply saturate a corner of a white cotton handkerchief with spittle (I did say some of the cleaning tips were not entirely sanitary) and then rub over the stain, which rapidly vanishes. On reflection, then, perhaps it is possible to be clean of clothing and conscience after all.

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.

(Anti)Social Media, Men & Luxury Fashion

I was pleasantly surprised to receive my pre-ordered iPhone 6 on the day of its release; I had been told to expect a wait of between two and three weeks. As it happens, the delivery was timely. Social Media Week begins on Monday and I shall be considering the relationship between social media and men’s luxury fashion in a panel discussion organised by Like Minds.

So what do I think of Apple’s latest game-changer? Tim Cook gave a stirring keynote address to launch the iPhone, its bigger brother the iPhone Plus and the much-anticipated Apple Watch, but the reality is that this latest version seems little different to earlier incarnations of the iPhone, at least this is my impression after two days of play. In one respect, however, my use of this phone will be different. Not because of the ‘new HD retina display’ or the ’64-bit desk-top class architecture’, but because the protruding camera – a clumsy design decision – means I shall invest for the first time in a protective case.

If my decision to buy a case was easily made, the process of obtaining one will be far harder because very few are available. Whilst some companies (eg. Knomo) have responded speedily to Apple’s latest product launch and provided online previews of cases and sleeves that will fill virtual shelves in forthcoming weeks, many luxury retailers, including Aspinall, Asprey, Bill Amberg, Mulberry and Smythson, have provided no information about future product launches. On reflection, and with further web browsing, this silence is all the greater because few of these luxury accessory brands presently offer more than a handful of iPhone and iPad covers. Next to nothing is offered for the owners of other makes of smartphone and the growing range of ‘phablets’.

Small branded accessories, from belts to wallets, have enabled the likes of Burberry and Gucci to establish a wider customer base where there is an inverse correlation between people’s brand savvy and their financial resources. The hope, presumably, is to offer a sufficiently diverse product range to enable customers to ‘graduate’ from small initial purchases to larger and commensurately more expensive purchases as they learn to appreciate the brand ethos and acknowledge the self-esteem it provides them. It seems odd that Aspinall et al. have not thought to do likewise. These brands all offer pricier ranges of luggage for which a technology case could provide a lucrative lead-in. The likely reason for this seemingly ‘uneconomic’ activity is that luxury brands continue to have a very limited engagement with social media, a phenomenon largely facilitated by hand-held technology. If the likes of Aspinall, Asprey, Bill Amberg, Mulberry, Smythson, pay little heed to the materiality of phones and ‘phablets’, is it any wonder that they do not fully recognise the creative and social applications of these devices?

Whilst it is very frustrating, the decision of luxury brands not to produce technology cases, or to provide a strictly limited range of them, may not be entirely lackadaisical. Through their paltry provision of technology cases, established luxury brands could be behaving in a similar manner to their most loyal customers by trying to flaunt their cultural capital. As a greater number of people are now able to purchase status-laden products, cultural capital, the ability to demonstrate connoisseurship and informed selection when choosing goods and services, has become more important in separating established wealth from newly acquired wealth. For an established luxury brand facing new sources of competition, one survival strategy in a crowded marketplace could be to focus on foundational collections that are unique, long-standing and largely inimitable because the required expertise and rarity of materials are hard to acquire. New product ranges (ie. technology cases) that might fit ill with a brand’s heritage are, prudently, left to newer companies that have been specifically established to produce them.

That said, regardless of whether a company is old or new the decision to sell products on the back of social media’s popularity may be easier said than done. The use of applications like Twitter hint at a pronounced gender divide that could make marketing tricky for all interested parties. I have done no systematic study to test this assertion, but if you look at the Twitter feed of the people you follow, there is likely to be a dichotomy between male and female tweeters, probably along the following lines: Men’s Twitter feeds tend to be chiefly compromised of recycled content (i.e. re-tweets). Original content is mostly mono-syllabic and declarative. Assertive statements, which might be aimed at specific followers, are given emphasis with a liberal use of exclamation marks, question marks and emoticons. By contrast, the Twitter feed of females tends to feature more original content. It is also characterised by being interrogative with questions directed to specific and general followers alike. Recycled content is likely to be prefaced with the re-tweeter’s thoughts.

Whilst these observations are very general and based on nothing more scientific than a trawl through the twitter feeds of friends and followers, I am struck by the fact that men’s use of Twitter seems to marry up with the conclusions of empirical sociological studies that have considered topics as diverse as male depression and men’s changed patterns of living after retirement. Cumulatively, the conclusions of these sociological studies suggest that a socialised notion of masculinity – where men should appear lean and physically able, stoic and refrain from discussing emotions, ‘manly’ and eschew activities that could make them seem effeminate, and compelled to excel in professional roles so as to provide for themselves and their immediate family – prevails and overrides the myriad masculinities that academics and commentators have attempted to delineate in recent years. The implication is that men’s usage of Twitter, and related social media, is likely to be characterised by anti-social tendencies – declaring rather than discussing, contrasting rather than considering, inclusive rather than expressive.

Unfortunately, these musings bring me no closer to finding a case for my iPhone 6 and a request for recommendations through Twitter is unlikely to yield much, at least from my male followers.

 

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!

Framing Fashion

Why Taking The Money Shot Has Never Been Harder

An edited version of this article was originally published with the London College of Fashion’s Pigeons & Peacocks.

 

 “They’re supposed to be soft like that. They’re supposed to be backlit. It’s maybe all the things she doesn’t like, but that’s what they’re supposed to be.”[i]

The disagreement between American Vogue’s Creative Director, Grace Coddington, and Design Director, Charlie Churchward, which features in R.J. Cutler’s documentary The September Issue, revolves around a Brassaï-inspired shoot that features young women posing in a Parisian-looking bar in 1920s-style dress.

Image4

Coddington wanted to preserve the soft colour and blurry quality of her photographs; Churchward, responding to concerns from Editor Anna Wintour, wanted to ‘pump them up’. The exchange added spice to Cutler’s film, but it highlights how approaches to fashion photography have changed over the decades. Coddington and Churchward were not engaging in a personal spat; rather, they were advocating different photographic approaches. Coddington, who has worked with some of the century’s most acclaimed photographers, from Lord Snowden and David Bailey to Helmut Newton and Patrick Demarchelier, relies on personal instinct rather than personal computers to create her pictures. In Cutler’s film and in her recently published memoirs, Coddington acknowledges her old fashioned inclinations, although claims she is no technophobe. Churchward, on the other hand, wants to use technology to boost and enhance images, to make them as bright and clear as possible. He also seems averse to anything too different; in the film, at any rate, his counsel is always tailored to Wintour’s wants. The personality, the magic and the  fantasy that make Coddington’s work stand out seems to have increasingly little place beneath Vogue’s celebrity-centred cover.

If she could have spared the time, Coddington would have enjoyed two recent London exhibitions that celebrated the life and works of Norman Parkinson (National Theatre)[ii] and Erwin Blumenfeld (Somerset House).[iii] Like Coddington, both men injected their personality, or personas, into their photography. Parkinson, with his carefully dishevelled moustache, revelled in the pseudo-aristocratic air that he created. His mischievous sense of humour is evident in many of his photographs, which often make play with authority and tradition; like his 1963 image for Life magazine, which features Melanie Hampshire and Jill Kennington talking to two British bobbies, or his 1975 photograph for American Vogue, where a red-clad Jerry Hall swings a red Communist flag in front of red Communist poster board.

Models Talking to Policemen

By contrast, Blumenfeld, who worked almost entirely from his New York studio, seems to have been a more foreboding, perhaps even arrogant, figure. Feelings of self-doubt may have contributed to his bizarre death; he is said to have repeatedly run up and down the Spanish steps in Rome to trigger a heart attack. Blumenfeld’s instense and exquisitely choreographed photographs, which are characterised by rich textures and a limited colour palette, reflect his troubled personality, for beneath the beauty lurks something sinister and dangerous. Whenever I think of Blumenfeld, I picture his blonde-haired ‘Virgin in the City’, which seems to have been produced in homage to the movie poster for Fritz Lang’s dystopian epic Metropolis; or his promotional images for Chesterfield Cigarettes, which feature a sultry femme fatale with dark red lipstick and coordinating fingernails nonchalantly inhaling and exhaling. Unfortunately, the back-story that plays such an integral part in the photographs of Parkinson, Blumenfeld and Coddington is conspicuously absent from much modern fashion photography.

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In part, this is inevitable. Parkinson and Blumenfeld were working at a time when commerce, technology and democracy were opening up the world. They were among the first photographers to capture the exotic sights of faraway destinations and to experiment with new advances in technology. Their work was pioneering and it has stood the test of time because of its novelty. A novelty that scores of photographers have tried to reinterpret, as shoots by Julian Broad and Elena Rendina in July’s Harper’s Bazaar demonstrate. But the images that Parkinson and Blumenfeld brought to life through their lens are not iconic simply because they were the first of their kind. Their photographs are revered and imitated because they are so characterful and technically accomplished. So here’s a paradox. The development of new photographic technologies, not to mention editing software, has probably increased the photographer’s ability to create and conjure, and yet many contemporary fashion shoots are devoid of texture, diverse colours and exotic landscapes. Where have the Parkinsons and Blumenfelds gone?

The photographs that sell clothes and desirable lifestyles in fashion magazines today are almost invariably composed with solid colour backgrounds. Movement from models is limited. This might be because models now tend to be A-list celebrities and there is a limit as to what can be asked of them. With agents, contracts and health and safety to consider, I wonder if Angelina Jolie or Anne Hathaway would balance on a white Doric column, as did Appollonia van Ravenstein for Norman Parkinson and British Vogue in 1973? Where fashion shoots are more imaginative, and when A-list celebrities do not feature, the editing of the photographs is often distracting, as is the case with Stéphanie Sednaoui’s pictures in July’s Italian Vogue. Independently produced style magazines, like the recently produced and already critically acclaimed Article, are generally more creative than the giants of Condé Nast and Hearst, but this is usually due to the layout of the magazine and the use various grades of paper, rather than through photography. In fact, the contribution of photography to the marketing of fashion seems to have reached a low ebb. Magazine adverts and their accompanying photography now tend to serve as enticements for online movies. Omega and Dior have recently released photographic films and in so doing follow Persol and Dunhill, among others. Fashion houses, like Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney have combined film and photography to create interactive moving images for digital magazines like Post.

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This is not to say that contemporary fashion photography is now wholly digitised and banal – and as a fashion historian, rather than a fashion photographer, I am really in no position to judge this, anyway – but I do think that advances in technology and the cult of celebrity make it harder to produce images of the purity of Parkinson and Blumenfeld. Another notable point is that Parkinson and Blumenfeld (even Grace Coddington) had a certain disconnect with the fashion world. They never seem to have been completely enamoured with their editorial employers and resented perceived infringements of their artistic licence. Their relative distance from fashion may have enabled them to see what many career-hungry photographers do not, and today there are many more want-to-be fashion photographers. As Anna Wintour has remarked about Bill Cunningham, a cycling octogenarian who chronicles style for The New York Times, “he sees something on the street or on the runway that completely missed all of us. And in six months’ time, you know, that will be a trend.’[iv] Is it possible that the outlook of Parkinson and Blumenfeld enabled them to inject a unique objectivity and discipline into their photographs?

But all is not lost. The London exhibitions of Parkinson and Blumenfeld’s work, not to mention the ubiquity of historic references in contemporary clothing collections, suggests that fashion designers and editors are reengaging with the past to make their clothes stand out in what is now an increasingly crowded market. The advent of Instagram and Tumblr, which has made Scott Schuman’s of us all, is also rekindling interest in photographs where the image takes centre stage; and all the better if the exposure and colours of the image are imperfect, because this reflects the story, if not necessarily the reality, of the snapped subjects. Towards the end of The September Issue, Grace Coddington ruefully remarks that she “got left behind somewhere because I’m still a romantic. You have to go charging ahead, you can’t stay behind.”[v] I hope that renewed interest in fashion photography from the past makes people realise that romanticism and modernity are not incompatible.


[i] The September Issue: Anna Wintour and the Making of Vogue. A Film by R.J. Cutler (2009).

[ii] R. Muir, Norman Parkinson: Portraits in Fashion (London, 2012).

[iii] Erwin Blumenfeld Studio, ed. N. Blumenfeld Charbit, F. Cheval & U. Eskildsen (Museum Folkwang, 2013).

[iv] Bill Cunningham NewYork. A Film by Richard Press (2010).

[v] The September Issue.