Thursday, January 21, 2010

Shanghai Surprise: Prada's Spring Awakening

Pictures usually succeed where words will fail, and in fashion it seems that video is having more than its day as a medium for artistic advertising. On the streets of Shanghai in a world of nostalgia outside of time, Prada presents its spring/summer 2010 menswear collection in this spellbinding short film by Yang Dufong.

Do watch the film, but make sure to dim the lights, and prepare for magic realism in stark black and white.

Two Costume Confessions

Now before you go thinking this is turning into a personal drama blog, read on and be assured you are in for some rarely seen costume history material culture. And a big dose of the marketing of fashion history by Britain's most famous luxury department store.

That brings me to the confession. I've only been inside it once, and that was to use the loo on my first trip to London nearly fifteen years ago.  Now, living here for the past five years, I haven't ventured in, even for a pitstop. Liberty lures me often, but I have never been ensnared by Harrod's
That said, I have instead become terribly smitten with a pamphlet Harrod's produced in 1949 to celebrate its centennial. And just how did they publicize this event in retail history? Not with a sale or splashy ad campaign, but with a costume exhibition! As this practice is currently in vogue, with stores and brands like Jaeger and Marks and Spencer mounting academic exhibitions of their material archives, it is a perfect time to have a closer look at this early example of retailers linking contemporary fashion to its history.

How I have come to discover this exquisitely designed brochure, and to shed some scanner light on it, is my second confession.  I borrowed this item from the small but brilliant library at The Motley Theatre Design Course where I studied.  Then I put it in a file of things to look at later. Two years later.  So, thanks to this blog, it has come to the top of the list of things to share, and thus I can now return it to Motley with humble thanks and embarrassment.  To Motley, and to Percy Harris who built the library and has inspired generations of theatre design students I dedicate this post.

Without further ado, or further comment:
 Harrod's 100 Years of Fashion

Hope you enjoyed this forgotten treasure, a look at fashion parallels worth remembering.
And thus with a clear conscience, I may just treat myself to a visit to Knightsbridge.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Power of Juxtapostion

It's always immensely satisfying to see a thing and its representation side by side, especially if they have long been separated or have never before been in the same place.  In the case of The Sacred Made Real, The National Gallery's current  exhibition of Spanish painting and polychrome sculpture, the impact of 'the sacred' and 'the real' are multiplied by just this sort of pairing.

Velazquez painting of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, and Juan Martinez Montes sculpture of the same. 

A haunting and invigorating exhibition, by way of curation and design, it generates a palpable collective energy and yet manages to seem incredibly intimate.  At times it seems as though there is not a soul in the galleries save oneself and sculpted mannequins. But then, that was also a function of the exquisite lighting design.

Installation views from the exhibition

What's that? Did I change the focus of this blog already? No it's still fashion focused, and The Sacred Made Real is indeed of relevance to dress history and fashion curation.  The range of garments and textiles faithfully reproduced in wood and paint by the polychrome masters are a treasure trove of costume historical information in themselves. But the exhibition's presentation of representations 
of dress in both two and three dimensional form simultaneously is titillating beyond belief. In some cases the sculpted figures were designed to be dressed with real clothing, like ancient devotional dress mannequins.

Taking a closer look at the garments and textiles represented I wondered whether the real artefacts exist.  Would the exhibition have been improved by the inclusion of actual textile artefacts? Perhaps not, but here we can have a look at what your virtual curator found to satisfy the urge.

The pillow which Christ's head lays in this sculpture by Gregorio Fernandez (1625-30) is embellished with blackwork embroidery, a technique which the Spanish were reknowned for in the 17th century. 

Sculpture of St. Francis in Ecstasy (1663) by Pedro de Mena and The Robe of the Theotokos  (presently kept in a museum in Zugdidi, Georgia). Although it is a Greek example, the shape and texture of the garment are very similar.

This mens' shirt from 17th century Spain, although not a religious garment is a rare surviving example of clothing from the period and also bears similarity of texture and fabrication to the ecclesiastical wear displayed in the exhibition.

This sculpture of St. Francis Borgia (c. 1624) by Montanes and Pacheco is an imagen de vestir, a mannequin dressed in a cassock that would have also been dress in elaborate garments for religious occasions. The painted cloth gives the semblance of soft black leather.  Perhaps this piece will inspire some fashion designers, and we may see cassock coats processing down the runways before long!

For more information on the exhibition visit the National Gallery's website, where you can learn more about the works on display and view a video introduction by curator Xavier Bray.  

The Allure of Decay

A few years ago, shortly after the beginning of the new year, an acquaintance surprised me by offering that his New Year's Resolution was to avoid being attracted by decay.  This alarming but considered decision struck me as nearly blasphemous. How could one avoid an aesthetic affinity for ruined castles, or the whole of Venice, or the colours of rust and patina? Moreover how could I imagine resisting the allure of the exquisite decay of clothing and textiles? Threadbare cotton velvet? Discoloured table linens? Fraying beadwork? Shattered silk?

Well, to each his own.  At the time, I didn't actually know what shattered silk was. In terms of costume artefacts it is synonymous with death. Once diagnosed with a case of shattered silk, a dress will never likely be exhibited, or even seen. Shattered silk: Irreversible, irreparable and yet, irresistible.  

An example of shattering on a 17th century embroidery from the Liverpool Museum

Although this blog will most often celebrate the preservation and exhibition of dress and textiles, those barely surviving but still mesmerising pieces are sources of inspiration nonetheless. When the opportunity arises to feature and share images of garments afflicted by time and touch, it will be seized. Consider it a New Year's resolution.

For more information on textile conservation and the effects of shattered silk see Alexandra Palmers article 'A bomb in the collection: researching and exhibiting early 20th-century fashion' published in The Future of the 20th Century: Collecting, Interpreting and Conserving Modern Materials (2006).