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.

Tribute to Elegance: Robert Kerr

This article was first published with Parisian Gentleman.

 

Thomas Drischel is a man on a mission.

You would not know this from his elegant and tailored appearance, which conveys a sense of calm seriousness, but engage him in conversation and an enthusiasm and intensity for his work suddenly becomes apparent.

‘Work’ is perhaps not the right word, however, for it has associations with conformity and routine, and this is not a humdrum story of homogeneity. Thomas Drischel is about to realise a long-held ambition, to create a brand of luxury menswear accessories in homage to his grandfather, Robert Kerr.

Robert Kerr provides Drischel’s company with more than just its name. It is the heritage and values that his grandfather espoused that Drischel is seeking to recreate, and this is no mean feat.

For more than thirty years, and after a short career as a sailor, Kerr worked as a tailor and cutter for Hoggs & Sons, which operated from premises adjacent to Savile Row – 35 Sackville Street and later 19 Clifford Street – until it closed in 1999. Working as a London tailor, he also developed connections with French textile manufacturer Dormeuil.

An overcoat made by Kerr survives, as do some of his dress accessories – ties, pocket squares and cufflinks. Many more of his items exist only between the pages of family photograph albums. It was these items of sartorial memorabilia that first made Drischel aware of his family’s links to one of Britain’s most prestigious exports: the Savile Row suit.

In one sense, Thomas Drischel’s entrepreneurial venture is another example of a much wider trend pursued by men in their early adulthood, to engage with a time when life seemed more stable. Clothing styles of the past, which reference an era when men’s social and political position appeared unassailable, have become material substitutes for peace of mind, which the spectre of globalisation and finance capital denies them.

Like many professionally successful men in their early thirties, Drischel, a former manager at Galeries Lafayette, is conscious of the style cues that he takes from the past. He wears beautiful bespoke double-breasted suits, high-waisted trousers with braces, pocket squares and long silk scarves. He is particularly fond of a gold collar bar that he wears with tab-collar shirts. The item had belonged to his grandfather.

It is the frequent references to Drischel’s grandfather during our conversation that makes it clear to me that his company is not just another dandy-inspired emporium, and we should be grateful for this. The adage of Greek statesman Pericles, that ‘What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others’, seems apposite to what Drischel is seeking to achieve.

He does not say so explicitly, for he is more aesthete than academic, but Drischel considers clothing a conduit through which people simultaneously learn about themselves and laud their personal qualities. He sees the way people dress as an extension of where they originate and who they want to be.

The meanings wrapped within clothing are therefore of uppermost concern to him. To this end, Drischel has sourced materials and manufacturers from all over Europe to produce the ties, pocket squares and scarves that will form part of his inaugural collection for Robert Kerr.

Appropriately, considering his grandfather’s maritime past, Drischel has travelled the world to find the very best artisans and sartorial purveyors. A mill in the north of England is producing hand-printed silks. An Italian textile factory has supplied silks from the 1950s. Tie labels are being created on hand-operated wooden looms in Japan. Trocas mother of pearl, sourced from South Korea, will become decorative buttons, after it has been hand engraved in Northern France. Drischel has also collaborated with Dormeuil to produce a limited range of exclusive ties.

The wealth of experience that is represented within each Robert Kerr product demonstrates how Drischel is not simply making items to provide a sartorial salve for disenfranchised style-seekers. His goal is loftier.

For each of his customers he is trying to curate the intensity of feeling and engagement that he derives from wearing clothes that were made and worn by his grandfather. His range of clothes are not so much conceived to sate social anxieties, but to stimulate his customers to think more creatively and purposefully about the relationship that exists between their clothing and character.

Material objects do convey meaning, clothing not least, but the processes involved in the creation and consumption of garments make it very difficult for any one designer or manufacturer to ensure their vision is understood by their customers.

If Robert Kerr is different, and more likely to succeed, it is because the whole enterprise is centred on the personal relationship between a grandfather and a grandson. This is a bond, universally understandable, that transcends cultures and social divides.

The themes of quality, integrity and history are similarly ubiquitous and compelling. More fundamentally, it is the humility with which Drischel speaks about his company, and the humanity he wants his products to express, that conveys how different his company is to other luxury brands.

Robert Kerr pursues excellence without the sense of exclusion and considers prestige without the flannel of pretension because it focuses on the wearer, unlike many luxury companies. Like the very best luxury purveyors, however, the talking is left to the garments.

As to what they say, I asked Drischel for the single word that defines Robert Kerr.

‘Passion’ was his response and I would not disagree.

Robert Kerr

 

The Beaton Effect

The Cecil Beaton revival continues this month with the publication of Hugo Vickers’ Cecil Beaton: Portraits and Profiles and the opening of Beaton at Brook Street, which will run from 18 November to 5 January, at Colefax & Fowler’s Mayfair studio.

Photographer, designer, diarist, socialite and (failed) playwright, Sir Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) achieved fame and international respect through his costume designs for the Hollywood films Gigi (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964), for which he received Academy Awards. In Britain, Beaton photographed royalty – Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother dined at his home of two occasions – and the devastated remains of London during the Blitz. In 1968, he received the honour of being the first living photographer to have his work exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery. In 1972, he was knighted.

Beaton was named to the international best-dressed list in 1970 along with some of the most revered designers and dressers of the day, including Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and Gianni Agnelli. In his youth, and as one of the Bright Young Things, Beaton dressed in a provocative manner; he loved fancy dress costumes and wore make-up. The desire to establish himself as an international photographer meant Beaton toned down his look during the mid-1930s, although contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic continued to remark on his style and flair, which owed much to Edwardian vogues and his love of theatrical productions. A client of some of Savile Row’s most prestigious tailors, including Anderson & Sheppard, Huntsman and Henry Poole, Beaton also had garments made by a local tailor in Dorset. Significant collections of his clothing remain in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

In the process of gathering research for my book about Beaton’s dress, I have seen many contemporary interpretations of the ‘Beaton Look’. It is really no surprise that Beaton’s style continues to captivate because it champions individual expression and romanticism over homogeneity and conformity, which he loathed. Giles Deacon and Dries Van Noten claim Beaton’s work and style has inspired their catwalk creations. The revival of dandical dress has led to a more general interest in his clothing; William Banks-Blaney, founder and owner of William Vintage, told me that he regards Beaton as the father of vintage clothing. In the BBC’s 1984 documentary The Beaton Image, photographer David Bailey said that Cecil Beaton ‘could fit into any time … he was very adaptable’. Evidently, the same is true of his style.

I am talking about Beaton’s image in two lectures connected with the Beaton at Brook Street exhibition:

‘Something of Me’: Portraits of Sir Cecil Beaton ~ National Portrait Gallery, 20 November.

‘Sir Cecil Beaton: My Fashionable Life’ ~ Colefax & Fowler Studio, 2 December.

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Homo Hermaphroditis

 

The following article, written for Parisian Gentleman,  is an attempt to understand the conspicuous hermaphroditism within the recent round of international menswear shows. It develops ideas from my previous post on the Great Male Revival.

Homo Hermaphroditis? A Look at How Culture Relates to the Styles of Spring/Summer 2015.

Retro-grade Raiment

This article was first published with Parisian Gentleman.

A few weeks ago, I attended a panel discussion chaired by the fashion critic Colin McDowell. In contrast to his interviewees, who took advantage of their momentary media appearance by wearing a medley of tight-fitting glitzy garments, McDowell’s clothes were conspicuous for being unremarkable. Sporting a jacket and trousers in complementary shades of grey and brown, he would not have stood out in a crowd. But one item of McDowell’s dress did catch my eye. Draped around his shoulders was a taupe– perhaps fawn, possibly mushroom –coloured scarf embroidered with the Calvin Klein logo.

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It is surprising how an unexpected visual stimulus can crystallise subconscious thoughts and catapult them to the front of your mind. Colin McDowell’s colour-keyed scarf was to be this stimulus. Calvin Klein is a brand that I largely associate with underwear, despite the huge window displays in its Regent Street store that showcase everything but. It is also a brand that I associate with the 1990s. In 1992, it was Mark Wahlberg’s arresting appearance, clad only in Calvin Klein briefs, that made underwear an item of designer clothing of the first order and highlighted the decade’s obsession with branded merchandise. When I saw the Calvin Klein logo on Colin McDowell’s scarf, I was suddenly cognisant of the present popularity of all things from the nineties. I became rudely aware that we are in the middle of a retro renaissance.

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2013 or 1993?

Backpacks and baseball caps are ubiquitous. Denim, Doc Martens and Converse trainers have been rediscovered. Over-size jumpers, T-Shirts and branded sweatshirts are de rigueur. Tartan, patchwork textiles and paisley represent the height of sartorial sophistication. For some. The fashionable markers of the 1990s have become today’s symbols of supreme style. Sartorial trends, fads and movements are rarely without an accompanying soundtrack and so it is here. Dusted off or recently purchased, over ear headphones are once again playing grunge and other angst-filled anthems from the 1990s. Travelling about the capital in recent weeks, I have caught snippets of lyrics from Blur, Sum 41 and Nirvana. Adorned in the correct wardrobe and wired for sound, it is only appropriate that people are also choosing to sample nineties-style entertainment. There is much on offer. Highlights include the Spice Girls’ ‘mini’ reunion and the stage adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ satiric novel, American Psycho. It is apposite that the musical’s lead, Matt Smith, will be recognisable to many for playing the title character in the eponymous, and recently revived, Doctor Who franchise.

Back To The Future

The fascination with the nineties is odd on at least two counts. Firstly, the years between 1989 and 2000 are typically considered to be a period that fashion forgot. Secondly, what we are seeing of the nineties is only an insipid distillation of what the decade was about; or at least what I think it was about, having lived through it. At a recent concert, I heard teenagers belting out and butchering songs from The Dandy Warhols and Fat Boy Slim, among other artists. To my ears, these groups’ songs were hardly reflective of a tumultuous decade that witnessed the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the rise of the Internet and New Labour in Britain, the Gulf War (part one) and a presidential indiscretion that profoundly skewed our perspective of politics and cigars.[i] In ‘Bohemian Like You’, The Dandy Warhols sing about a broken car, waiting tables and the arrangements for a friend sleeping over after a relationship break-up. The lack of engagement with the decade’s dramas hardly seems to matter, and is generally not remarked upon, for this renaissance is commercial rather than cultural. And why should it be any different? The teenage revellers whom I heard a few weekends ago would have first heard ‘Bohemian Like You’ from their cots as it played on a Vodafone commercial.

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A Retrograde Renaissance?

The selections that companies and consumers are making from nineties’ popular culture suggests their intention is to bolster the enfeebled cult of commerce. They are seeking to cull the ephemeral euphoria that follows a retail splurge from a decade that experienced economic boom and distil it for a decade enduring economic bust. Akin to perfumers, who seek to capture and artificially prolong alluring scents, those who look back to the nineties are trying to rekindle the confidence and satisfaction of a time when the economy, and the culture it underpinned, was strong.[ii] Similar to characters in Woody Allen’s romantic whimsy, Midnight In Paris, people – particularly the young, who have never experienced a recession – are looking for a Golden Age to escape their present. They want to recapture a time when the bombast of D:Ream’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ seemed suitable and not merely satirical. This song, of course, had heralded the start of Tony Blair’s promising premiership in 1997.

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In Woody Allen’s film, procrastinating writer Gil (Owen Wilson) inadvertently boards a time-travelling taxi at the stroke of midnight and experiences Paris during the 1890s and 1920s, meeting artistic luminaries from Pablo Picasso to the F. Scott Fitzgerald along the way. It is after a conversation with Lautrec, Gauguin and Degas in a Belle Époque club that Gil, in conversation with his 1920s-timetravelling-companion Adriana (Marion Cotillard), realises his flight from the present is futile:

Gil: I mean, look at these guys. To them, their Golden Age was the Renaissance. You know, they’d trade La Belle Époque to be painting alongside Titian and Michelangelo. And those guys probably imagined life was a lot better when Kublai Khan was around. I’m having an insight now. It’s only a minor one, but it explains the anxiety in my dream that I had.

Adriana: What dream?

G: I had a dream the other night – well, it was like a nightmare – where I ran out of Zithromax and then I went to see the dentist, and he didn’t have any Novocaine. You see, what I’m saying is these people don’t have any antibiotics.

A: What are you talking about?

G: Adriana, if you stay here, and this becomes your present, then pretty soon you’ll start imagining another time was really your Golden Time… That’s what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying because life’s a little unsatisfying.

According to media pundits and populist politicians, (young) men find the present particularly unsatisfying because they have suffered most from the economic downturn, which has shattered their pretension to social and political significance. True or not, it is hard to deny that men seem to be conjuring a Golden Age through their dress. Three-piece suits and tie bars, boutonnières and braces, cigars and slicked-back hair, are style signifiers from bygone periods when men’s social and political position was unassailable.

Logomania is dead. Long Live Logomania

The majority of decades down to the 1920s have been pilfered for patterns and jaunty accessories, but a quick look on Tumblr confirms that style cues from the 1990s are still preponderant on the streets. Susie Lau has argued that the resurgence of nineties style and conspicuous branding is not solely about ‘consumerism, tackiness and a lack of taste’.[iii] Instead of escaping to the past, young people are reclaiming brands and their devices to help them place themselves in the present. Too young to enjoy or critically interpret logos in the late 1980s and early 1990s, twenty- and thirty-somethings are now ‘wearing [logos] in [their] own way’, with intelligence and individuality.[iv] This is apparently most evident with T-shirts that make puns out of prestigious brands.

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True as this may be, the actions of youthful consumers nonetheless show how culture – and clothing – has changed following the globalisation of the economy. In his seminal essay, ‘Culture and Finance Capital’, Fredric Jameson observed that there is an indissoluble connection between society’s conception of capital and the culture it produces. Presently, Western culture is increasingly abstract because its conception of money is abstract. The point is eloquently demonstrated by the inscrutable dialogue between cyber capitalist Eric Packer and his chief of theory, Vija Kinski, in Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis.[v] Cultural messages now appear fragmented, even meaningless. Writing about the modern music industry, which has many parallels with the fashion industry, Simon Reynolds agues that the ‘gaseous nature of our existence’ fosters a lack of original thought and action.’[vi] The consequence is that we lack the imagination to do anything more creative than think of different ways of packaging former ideas. Fashion, like music, is frequently cyclical, but the circumference of chronological cycles is becoming ever smaller.[vii]

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Ideas from the nineties are easier to reconstitute because of our proximity to them. The reason men appear more willing – if sometimes subconscious – proponents of this retrograde renaissance is that their social status is more sensitive to economic ebbs and flows than that of women. The abandonment of the (pin stripe) suit after the economic downturn made a clamorous sartorial statement that man’s dress is frequently linked to notions of economic prosperity. The suit had become a dangerous symbol of man’s greed, his financial and political recklessness. It was swiftly replaced with mix n’ match jacket and trousers that suggested he was humane and harmless.[viii] The addition of a backpack, baseball cap and sneakers clarified the casual look that men sought to create. Simultaneously, these items reaffirmed men’s social position by demonstrating their continued ability to purchase from established brands. The acquisition of products from previous decades, not least the 1990s, provided psychological comfort through the material recreation of an apparent Golden Age. Men’s sartorial subterfuge therefore chimes with recent scientific research establishing that clothes really do make the man.[ix]

As a working theory based on Colin McDowell’s scarf I think my observations hold, but I am mindful of Adriana’s response to Gil in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris:

That’s the problem with writers. You are so full of words. But I am more emotional and I’m going to stay and live in Paris’ most glorious time.

What she says has undeniable truth and merit.

 


[i] D. Eggers, ‘1990s’, Vanity Fair (October, 203), 150.

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

[iii] S. Lau, ‘Check the Label: The Logo Strikes Back’, because, 1 (A/W, 2013), 34.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] D. DeLillo, Cosmopolis (London, 2003), 77-88.

[vi] S. Reynolds, Retromania: Pop culture’s addiction to its own past (London, 2011), xix, 420.

[vii] Cf. C. Beaton, ‘Is It the Clothes or the Woman? (1946)’, Beaton in Vogue (London, 1986), 157.

[viii] T. Dolby, ‘The day of the jacket is over’, GQ (March, 2013), 125; D. Hayes, ‘Mix and match of the day’, Financial Times: Life & Arts (23/24 February, 2013), 5.

[ix] J. Gaines Lewis, ‘Clothes Make the Man – Literally’, Psychology Today (August, 2012). www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-babble/201208/clothes-make-the-man-literally. Accessed: 5-xij-2013.

Three Months In Paris

As the capital of couture and the City of Love, Paris holds a particular fascination for many people.[i] Famed for its style and influential fashion designers, from Gabrielle Chanel to Jean Paul Gautier, visitors and social commentators have long tried to define Parisian chic. In the first guest submission to Linleywild, Modern Languages student and fashion writer Jake Hall seeks to distinguish sartorial fact from fiction in pursuit of the enigmatic Parisian Gentleman. Offering a more nuanced view than Baldesar Castiglione, who considered the French overdressed, and thankfully enjoying better conditions than George Orwell, Jake reflects on three months’ of Paris living.[ii] Jake has written for various fashion websites. His own website is: www.stylejourno.blogspot.co.uk.

If The Shoe Fits

Stereotypes are strange. Subconsciously they provide reassurance that everything in life is how it should be. When experiencing cultures for the first time, they help us to feel comfortable within our new surroundings. They make us believe that we can know what to expect. But for all the comfort they provide, stereotypes can deceive. When I finally took the plunge and moved to Paris three months ago, I clung to the stereotypes that I had grown up with. Wearing my designer coat (well, diffusion-range – I don’t have the budget just yet) and clutching my leather suitcase, my stereotypes gave me confidence as I boarded the Eurostar and braced myself for the long journey from Paddington to Paris. I assumed that I knew what awaited me on the other side of the Channel.

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I was wrong. Very wrong. I did not descend from the train into the chic and romantic world that I had seen in the films. There were no women in designer gowns, no men in tailored suits and certainly nobody waiting to escort me to an opulent hotel. Instead, I stepped into the abyss of Gare du Nord, a wretched place. If anybody proffers a friendly greeting, you can be sure that this is to distract you from their accomplice, who is waiting to grab your wallet. I was at the mercy of a sea of unfamiliar faces, speaking an unfamiliar language in an unfamiliar landscape. Things did not immediately improve. I left the station feeling bewildered, bemused and lost. Instead of walking directly to the hostel, which the website insisted was “impossible to miss”, I wandered unwittingly into a backstreet full of very short bald men who wanted me to sign some kind of petition. I hurriedly declined.

First Impressions

Only now, having lived in Paris for three months, can I look back on my first few hours in this iconic city and reflect on my disappointment. I felt as though I had been slapped in the face with a soggy baguette. There seemed to be no charm, no romance and no hope, only seedy alleyways and decidedly un-Parisian men. My trust in stereotypes was shattered. Hence the purpose of this article: to define, once and for all, the elusive ‘Parisian gentleman’. He is a man that everybody thinks they know, from his sharply-tailored monochrome ensembles, to his elegant accent and eccentric mannerisms. He is studied by many and revered by all. Since I arrived in Paris, I have searched for this man, with his pointed brogues and shock of black facial hair. I have seen a few archetypes, but something has always been askew. Either he has lacked an inch or two in height, or the lapel of his Dior suit has been creased from being pressed against the window of a crowded metro. Whatever the case may be, the men that I have seen have not matched my expectations.

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It is only recently that I have realised I am asking too much. Nobody is perfect. As a society we seem to expect all Parisian men, by reason of their birthplace, to be ‘the’ inimitable gentleman; the man we have seen portrayed in countless rom-coms. We expect him to possess the same artistic flair and intellect as the men we encounter in ‘must-read’ novels. It’s a tall order. Stereotypes exist for every race and nationality, but Parisian men (and women) seem to be held to higher sartorial and behavioural standards, just like their city. More than anywhere else in the world, Paris is relentlessly romanticised, to the extent that it will never be what people expect. The disappointment visitors feel when they plunge into the Parisian rat race is so profound that it warrants its own psychological condition, ‘Paris Syndrome’.[iii] Ironically, the definition of ‘Paris Syndrome’ is attributable to another stereotype, that of the Japanese tourist. Apparently, it is over-enthusiastic visitors from the East, armed with Nikon cameras and Metro maps, who are most crushingly disappointed by the metropolis’ inability to match media standards. The result is that they leave the City of Love suffering from ‘psychiatric breakdowns’.[iv]

Smoke And Mirrors

This particular expectation of Paris and its inhabitants is overly harsh, although bear in mind that I say this after living here for just three months. If anything, what I love most about Paris and its inhabitants is the honesty. Sometimes this can be brutal, often it is unsolicited. Every station in Paris, for example, displays signs warning of pickpockets. No beggar makes a secret of his desire to swindle you. Every waiter makes it abundantly clear that he is not there to ‘serve you’. The city does not attempt to sugar coat its flaws, yet the media continue to offer saccharine proclamations about beautiful landscapes and charming natives. The reality is that the Eiffel Tower looks decidedly unglamorous during the day and the ‘charming natives’ laugh in your face if you don’t speak French.[v] Despite its flaws, Paris remains one of the most beautiful cities in the world – the architecture is breath taking and the sprawling boulevards make perfect backdrops for the films that we have come to know and love. The media are willing to overlook the grime to focus on the spectacle. For this reason image and reality will continue to exist in separate spheres.

The Parisian Gentleman

Like his city, the ‘Parisian Gentleman’ is never quite what you expect, although that is not to say the two don’t have style. Parisian men have a unique way of dressing that has evolved in tandem with the rapidly expanding horizon of menswear. Androgyny and individuality are now both welcome. The ‘Parisian Gentleman’ will not infrequently wear a tailored suit with a patterned handkerchief poking from his breast pocket, or a pair of classic leather brogues with a pair of quirky socks. Black and white, by an overwhelming majority, are the colours of choice for the modern gentleman because this new breed of ascetic dandy knows that the devil is in the detail. In Paris, the distinction between daywear and eveningwear is increasingly blurred, so you’re just as likely to see a gentleman in dark slim-fit jeans and a crisp white shirt during the day, as you are to see him in tailored shorts and a bow tie. But Parisian style is not impractical. Urban life is tough and the city is, frankly, always freezing. For this reason, men appear to invest more in coats that are both sickeningly chic and sickeningly expensive. Every man has his own variation, but the classic navy pea coat and Burberry trench coat are the most popular choices – businessmen tend to wear them over a slick two-piece suit, more casual gentlemen team them with dark denim and leather boots.

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The one distinction between English and French style is this sense of uniformity. France is a country renowned for its patriotism and tradition – the words Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité are ever-present – and its attitude to dress follows suit.[vi] Times are changing, but experimentation will probably only be tolerated to a certain degree. This is not necessarily a bad thing as innovation can often be done for its own sake, cluttering an otherwise flawless outfit. Besides, Parisian men find more sartorially subtle ways to express their personality – monogrammed bags, block-coloured scarves and unusual jewellery are just a few examples. Like the city itself, where real style is only found when you explore beneath the surface, the dress of the Parisian Gentleman may not be as polished as his stereotypes suggest, but it is far more interesting when you notice the characterful details. In essence, the Parisian man matches his outfit to his character – his presentation has wit and an abundance of charm. My wardrobe has followed suit. Piercings and gaudy knitwear have been replaced with moisturiser and a navy dress coat. A floor-length black scarf has become the accessory of choice. I never leave with home without jewellery. It is now the cut of my black trousers that makes them interesting, rather than the print. Men here respect men with style and, thankfully, I have received nothing but compliments from my European counterparts.


[i] C. Breward, Fashion (London, 2003), 172-82.

[ii] B.Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, tr. G. Bull (London, 1967), 135; G. Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London (London, 1940).

Pull Yourself Together

A Belt & Braces Commentary on Modern Man’s Silhouette

This article was originally published with Parisian Gentleman.

 

Getting It Under My Belt

I’ve never liked belts. They disrupt the clothed silhouette by gathering and puckering fabric. They form an unsightly bulge beneath jumpers and look awkward peeking below a waistcoat, along with the tie end, untucked shirt and tummy.

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The resulting effect is to make the garments that cover a man’s torso and legs appear as if they belong to different people, as though two Matryoshka dolls had been erroneously paired. Belts conspicuously emphasise the poor fit of the garments they are holding up and in many cases, cruelly highlight the corpulence of the person wearing them. But this is to assume that belts are solely functional. Increasingly, street styled gents appear to be wearing belts for display rather than decorum. In recent weeks, Tumblr’s dedicated followers of fashion have featured men whose belts serve a similar function to those worn by WWI soldiers and Batman; that is, as a prop to hang important accessories – a Bell & Ross pocket watch costing £1,800, for example.

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But before we rush to proclaim the utility belt’s coming of age, not all of the objects slung from it are practical. In a photograph that I saw last week, a sitting room-styled gent poses with an ochre-coloured tassel suspended from his woven leather belt. Complementing the colour of his floral shirt, it would seem that the tassel is being worn much like a pocket square, as an object of decoration.

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Belt Up

Ilse Fingerlin’s Gürtel des hohen und späten Mittelalters (Belts of the High and Late Middle Ages) is probably unknown, certainly unread, beyond a small circle of German-speaking, dress-loving medievalists.[i] Under appreciated though the book may be, the fact that it was published testifies to the enduring sartorial and sociological appeal of the belt. Whilst its usefulness varies in direct proportion to the fit of the bifurcated garments to which it is attached, throughout history and across the world the belt has been available in various colours, materials and styles. It can be easily, and relatively cheaply, customised with studs, embroidery, branding or a different buckle, proclaiming anything from ‘Handle With Care’ to ‘Keep Calm And Party On’ ((slightly) more tasteful expressions are available). The belt’s flexibility delights the pragmatist and the peacock in equal measure. That said, I still don’t like it and for the past three years I have not worn one.

In using the belt to flaunt desirable characteristics and qualities, Modern Man is aping his medieval ancestors, who suspended daggers, purses and gloves from their belts, as much for each of use as to signify power, wealth and physical aptitude.[ii] The belt was similarly important for women because it emphasised the womb and highlighted their power as child bearer and mother, as Jan Van Eyck’s painting, The Arnolfini Wedding (1434), shows; more especially as the large-bellied bride is not actually pregnant.[iii]

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But to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park, the mathematician Dr Ian Malcolm, the sartorial and sociological knowledge of how to wear the belt has been acquired, rather than earned, and so any sense of how to wear it appropriately is obfuscated. Hence, perhaps, the frivolous tassel in the photograph. Today, belts are a convenient, even lazy, way of making ill-fitting trousers stay up. There is no need to be cognisant of the size of one’s body, or to consider the trousers’ drape, because the belt will hold things up regardless; or, as is the preference for certain (young) men, it will suspend said bottoms lower to reveal the waistband and brand of underwear. Essentially, this means that I dislike belts for what they represent, rather than what they are.

In the past, men’s clothes were attached by an interconnecting system of hooks and eyelets. Each garment was fastened to another to form the overall structure of the outfit. At a time when all garments were bespoke and handcrafted, it was imperative for men (and women) to know their body’s size and to appreciate how the various articles of clothing that constituted their garments were put together, whether or not they dressed themselves. This sartorial know-how died hard. In the twentieth century, long after doublets and hose had been superseded, Edward Windsor and his tailors devised innovative ways to ensure the ducal wardrobe retained its structure without looking too formal.[iv] It has been suggested that the Italian industrialist Gianni Agnelli wore custom-made shirts that fastened under the groin, to prevent them from rising up. But die the knowledge did. The duke and magnate were privileged men, but their style was a beneficiary of their wealth, rather than a cause of it. They understood how the clothed silhouette determined sartorial success or failure. Modern Man, rich or poor, seems content to let multinational companies dictate his size and style.

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Brace Yourself

The belt is not alone in incurring my sartorial censure. I also dislike clip-on braces. They, too, epitomise how Modern Man’s attitude to the structure of his outfit has slumped. I like, and wear, braces that attach to trousers by means of internal buttons – two pairs at the front and one pair at the rear – because they support even the most well-fitting of trousers from rising or sagging. Gravity being what it is, or as Isaac Newton explained it, a garment worn from the waist is always going to hang better if it is suspended from the shoulders, rather than being clamped directly against the skin, regardless of whether it is bespoke or off the peg. Buttoned braces become an integral part of a garment’s structure, whereas clip-on braces pull and mark the trouser fabric and often cause the waistline to bow. Above all, clip-on braces appear as thought they an after thought. It as though their wearer has realised that his trousers do not fit, or that he wants them to hang more freely, only after wearing them. The majority of off the peg trousers do not contain brace buttons, but this is changing. Slowly. Hackett now sell a range of braces with interchangeable ends that clip and button to trousers. The braces are sold with six buttons that can be sewn into any pair of trousers and they are not difficult to add.

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It’s A Stitch Up

I have focused on bottoms, but men also muck up their tops. In the past two weeks, I have seen three different men wearing off the peg jackets with the rear vents sewn together. I am not against off the peg tailoring – let’s be clear about that – but I struggle to grasp how men can buy clothes that don’t fit them. I suppose the point might be similar to women and their bras. I am really no expert here, but whenever I watch reality-based style programmes, unsuspecting women are always being berated for not knowing their cup size. To varying degrees, we all suffer from sizing myopia because we are content to accept unquestioned the sizing labels sewn into mass produced garments and believe that our unique physiques will snugly fit them. This is as much about personal self-esteem issues as it is Theodor Adorno’s belief that our faculties for critical thought have been weakened, if not obliterated, by contemporary consumer culture. The result is a ubiquity of similarly styled and poorly fitting garments that require belts and braces to hold them together. Given time, I hope the renewed interest in historic garments and vogues will engender an appreciation of how clothes should be worn. But if not, perhaps the belt tassel will become a trend and distract people from noticing Man’s sartorial sluggishness?

 


[i] I. Fingerlin, Gürtel des hohen und späten Mittelalters (Munich, 1971).

[ii] B.L. Wild, Emblems and enigmas: Revisiting the ‘sword’ belt of Fernando de la Cerda’,Journal of Medieval History, 37 (2011), 395; Idem, ‘A gift inventory from the reign of Henry III’, English Historical Review, 125 (2010), 535-36.

[iii] C. McDowell, The Anatomy of Fashion: Why We Dress The Way We Do (London, 2013), 77.

[iv] E. Dawson, ‘Comfort and Freedom’: The Duke of Windsor’s Wardrobe’, Costume, 47 (2013), 205-206.

Ceci est une pipe

A Review of Colin McDowell’s The Anatomy of Fashion

This article was initially published with TACK Magazine.

 

The image of René Magritte’s 1929 painting, “La trahison des images” (The Treason of Images), revolved in my mind as I read The Anatomy of Fashion, the latest of fashion critic Colin McDowell’s books published by Phaidon. Magritte’s small beige and brown canvas depicts a smoker’s pipe in profile with the counterintuitive phrase Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe) written below in cursive. Magritte’s provocative painting makes the point that art is representation, whatever its grounding in reality and however realistic it may sometimes seem: Viewers can no more stuff and smoke Magritte’s pipe than they can smell and touch Van Gogh’s famous sunflowers. McDowell’s Anatomy is Magritte’s “La trahison” in reverse; McDowell states that his book is “not intended to be an encyclopaedia,” and yet it is structured like one, reads like one, has the eye-straining font size of one and weighs like one – about 2 kilograms.

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The Anatomy of Fashion is divided into four parts. Section one, “The Body Unclothed,” consists of three sub-divided chapters that consider the colour, cut and texture of clothes, from classical times to contemporary. Section two, “The Body Anatomized,” analyses the cultural and sociological significance of human body parts, including the head, shoulders, knees and toes, which contain roughly half of all the bones in the adult skeleton. Section three, “The Body Clothed,” examines sartorial styles from the past and present in 43 page-long chapters that cover significant clothing trends and concepts—from Grunge and the New Romantics, to Capsule and Regal. The final section of the book provides a 5,000-year fashion chronology.
Comprehensive as it is, the book has no overarching thesis (although McDowell’s interest in the overlap between politics and dress, his suspicion of mass consumerism and his criticism of the fashion industry permeate his prose). At times his insights (or gripes) are plainly stated and explicit, like when he claims that modern designers “normally have a very short concentration span” and delight in “acres of news coverage,” but these statements are usually suppressed by the volume of anatomical facts (Did I mention the human foot contains 26 bones, 114 ligaments and 20 muscles, and supports “our weight throughout the 270 million steps of an average lifetime”?) and historical anecdotes (Did you know that the equestrian image of Charles I was in large part due to the fact that he had rickets? His legs were so weak that he wore boots to keep him upright.). Readers who are hoping to find the lively and lucid prose that characterises McDowell’s articles for The Business of Fashion will be disappointed; much like his Fashion Today, another encyclopaedic tome, The Anatomy of Fashion is not meant to be read through and will not reward any reader who attempts to do so.

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The Anatomy of Fashion is really four books sandwiched together. Each section has a slightly different—although equally irritating—layout, which makes use of half-size pages, columns, small fonts, thumbnail-size images with captions and expository quotations placed at 180 degrees to the main text. The design was presumably conceived to give the chapters character, and to help McDowell and Phaidon convince readers of their bold claim that they are adopting a “new approach to chronicling how we dress.” Yet in practice, the differing chapter designs express the disparate nature of their content. McDowell has tried to write a book that conveys some of the more complex ideas about clothing and fashion whilst retaining a conventional chronological and narrative structure, but the result is unsatisfactory (even if it is acknowledged that McDowell has pitched this book at a general, rather than academic, audience).

Material is not infrequently repeated across the books’ four sections. This is especially true of the third part, “The Body Clothed,” in which McDowell considers the semiotics of style under 43 arbitrary sub headings: “Establishment” and “Heritage” could surely be combined, and the same could be said of “Glamour” and “Regal,” and “Capsule,” “Convenience” and “Workwear.” Moreover, these short sections, along with the longer thematic chapters in section one, do not identify any key themes or turning points in the development of human dress.

If The Anatomy of Fashion breaks human dress into its basic elements as the introduction claims, it is left for readers to piece them all together and decide for themselves what the past 5,000 years of style might mean. If only McDowell had not been so quick to play down the encyclopaedic qualities of the book, which is surely its mainly selling point as it brings together content and concepts rarely found beneath a single cover, readers might have been more satisfied with the enlightening facts it provides (Did you know that Cinderella’s slipper was originally fashioned from fur so as to refer to the female genitalia, and only became known as a glass slipper due to a translation error?) and less cognisant of its lack of analysis and interpretation. However The Anatomy of Fashion was conceived, c’est une pipe—though not literally, of course.

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Colin McDowell, The Anatomy of Fashion: Why We Dress The Way We Do (London: Phaidon, 2013), HB Pp. 272. £59.95/$64.71 USD.

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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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.

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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.

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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.