Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Recap on Fashion International 5, Oxford UK

'The woman of fashion has chosen to make herself a thing'- Simone de Beauvoir

I was recently fortunate enough to attend Fashion International 5, the fifth international conference on fashion research. It was held in Harris Manchester College, one of the newer of the 38 colleges in Oxford; of course, "newer" in Oxford-ese simply means less old than some of the others, the first of which were built in the 13th Century (!) To these Australian eyes, it was old with its stately stone walls, its flourishing English garden, and its beautiful chapel, the stained glass windows of which were designed by Edward Burne-Jones and made by none other than William Morris. They were absolutely magnificent.

In addition to, you know, living in Oxford for a week, and all the cobblestoney wanderings, building staring and knowing nodding at passers-by it entailed, I was there to talk and hear about my favourite of all topics (well, almost): fashion. And boy, did we- three and a half days full of glorious talks that ranged in specificity from a consideration of the significance of a shade of red (Phantom Red) developed in the 1920s as a cosmetic tie-in to the silent film Phantom of the Opera to a discussion of two black dressmaker-designers who made dresses for Mary Lincoln and Jackie Kennedy, respectively. There were talks on bikinis and fashion criticism, on dress in Impressionist painting and Italian feminist magazines from the Seventies, on the values and stigmas that circulate around handmade clothing and the future of luxury goods. It was, in a word, fascinating.

I took copious notes and decided to share some snippets with you, mixed in with some photographs I took during the week to give you a taste of what it was like. My own paper, for those who are interested, was drawn from my fifth chapter, the one on fashion imagery, dress and identity. The section I presented on explored the alternative ways style bloggers perform their identity through dress on their blogs. I argued that this is not necessarily a "self-expression", but rather an instance in which bloggers dress particular selves into view as a negotiation of how they feel about themselves and how they wish to be seen, shaped by their clothing. It was obviously v. brilliant and v. relevant and if I publish it at some point, I'll be sure to include the details here if you'd like to look it up.

Above the entrance to St. John's College.

In a talk on the Chanel, the interior space and the public self-image of the couturier, Jess Berry quoted Paul Poiret who apparently told the clients coming to him for couture that 'you will not feel that you are in a shop, but in a studio of an artist, who intends to make of your dresses a portrait and a likeness of yourself.'

'material goods have a relationship with us'- Alfred Gell, anthropologist.

I remembered last week how much I admire the photography of Martin Munkacsi, who was employed by Harper's Bazaar from the mid-1930s after honing his craft by taking documentary-style photographs of everyday life and sports in Germany. My favourite photograph of his, below, was shown during Virginia Postrel's talk on glamour- I love it as an image and also because the model (Lucile Brokaw) bears a strong resemblance to my paternal grandmother Claudia and her sister Elizabeth. 

I chaired a fascinating session on fashion and age, and the panelists and audience had an engaged discussion about it for about an hour after both papers. We were led to consider how women perceive a gap between their 'ideal self' and their 'ought self', seeing themselves ('actual self') in the gap between. As a result, we dress to disguise parts of ourselves we dislike or are ashamed of, or as we grow older we talk about 'not being able' to wear certain clothes anymore: a self-imposed control that is closely tied with our feelings about ourselves and how we feel we 'should' appear. One of the panelists, Anne, observed that often when we try garments on that don't fit us properly we think that it is we and our bodies that are 'wrong' rather than seeing a lack in the garment itself (it's not sized properly, or cut for our figure etc.)- why is that, do you think?

Rosamond Lehmann, 1933 (image)

Some members of the Bloomsbury Group (Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell) with friends (image)

Giulia Negrello traced Virginia Woolf's love of fashion through her writing and spoke a little about the Bloomsbury group. Am now longing to pin my hair in a low soft bun and to sit on a lawn with gentlemen friends with beards and waistcoats talking about our writing and philosophy and ideas and stuff. Imagine a Bloomsbury Group member wouldn't say 'stuff'... or have a style blog? but one can dream, can't one? (I do imagine that a Bloomsbury Group member would refer to themself in the third person so maybe I can make up for my contemporary lack that way?)

Did you know that actors in Greek tragedy used to pray to the god masks they were about to don for their plays, believing that to play a god on stage was an act of spiritual transformation? 

Guys, I had never heard of Sara Thorn and Bruce Slorach before- have you? Merryn Gates, a PhD student from ANU is doing a great research project on post-punk culture in Australia- she presented on the work of Thorn and Slorach, two Australian designers who were incredibly successful both here and overseas in the Eighties. They were even written up in i-D, and after running their label and a store here they went their separate ways to design for Christian Lacroix, Mambo and Stussy among others.
Just check this menswear outfit out:
Isn't it amazing?! It reminds me a lot of Bernhard Willhelm's mens. I love it.
  I love it. If a man ever walked past me whilst wearing it I would not be responsible for my reaction.

Part of what stood out as a theme of the conference for me was the capacity of fashion research to add to the collective memory, to preserve and mark significant cultural moments. Merryn's work is a great example of this: to trace and record the development of a distinct and influential movement in Australian subcultural history. So too was Elizabeth Way's work on Elizabeth Keckly and Ann Lowe, the two African-American designers mentioned above, and Steeve Buckridge's work on lace-bark, a natural fabric extracted by African slaves from trees native to the Caribbean. Look out for his book (to be released next year)- I think it's going to be amazing.

This is the kind of scene I would spy on my walk to Harris Manchester every day.

I really enjoyed Leonard R. Koos's talk on Algerian womens' dress as a form of resistance against French colonisation in the late Nineteenth century. Look at this gorgeous picture of a Mauresque woman:
 Mauresque women wore jewellery underneath their outer garments that could not be seen by passers-by but which tinkled as they walked: the sound but not the sight was apparent. We know this because then-contemporary authors described it. You can see the bangles on her forearm in the image on the right. I am very taken with the whole ensemble: the ballooning white trousers, the flat dark slippers, the cocoon shape her outer cloak makes as it curves over her, and her eyes, the brief focal point between the jewels on her forehead and her mouth covering. 

A row of fairy-floss houses I walked past each day.

We also learned about Barbara Hoff, a Polish fashion designer who educated Polish women about fashion by issuing fashion 'diktats' and giving DIY ideas about how to recreate European fashions within the severe limitations afforded to them, living as they did in the then-People's Republic of Poland, a communist country. I quote Dominika Lokoszek's abstract here, my favourite example of Hoff's work that she gave: 'one of her most famous inventions was how to make fashionable ballerina flats out of sports shoes available then in shops: one had to cut out the part with laces and dye the "new" shoes black at home." 

It's an aspect of DIY that today's culture doesn't even touch on, does it? Nowadays you usually have to buy something new and transform it into the likeness of another item you can't afford, don't you find? Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is radically different to not actually being able to buy different clothes in shops, but relying on swapping with friends, radically reworking what was available or literally cutting up what you had to resew it into a more fashionable look. 

 Some best-I-could-do photographs of the Burne-Jones and Morris stained glass windows in the chapel at Harris Manchester. They were seriously beautiful. 

I came away hungry to hear more about the work that we'd had twenty-minute tastes of all week, and also super-charged to get back into my PhD. I was so encouraged to hear about the diversity of fashion research being conducted around the world, and am excited by what I have to say about style blogging. I can see my work cohering together more and more, see it shaping up and falling together and I simply cannot wait to share it with you. 

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