Fashion History Talks!: In conversation with Rebecca Arnold of the Courtauld Institute

Photograph of a woman in a diner in Harlem by Richard Avedon, 1949.

For Rebecca Arnold of the Instagram account @documentingfashion_courtauld, a picture speaks a thousand words. “We can’t know what made her look up,” reads Arnold’s caption for the image above, “only that it means we get a good view of her little hat–its feathers adding a sense of movement and drama to her figure…she is a busy woman taking a break from the city, a uniformed waitress ready for her order.” Covering a wide spectrum of fashion and dress history, Arnold’s insightful commentary accompanies striking and often candid images spanning the 20th and 21st centuries. From Parisian haute couture to the streets of New York City, her daily posts consistently ask us to expand the way we interact with the visual culture associated with the clothing we wear.

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-9-06-42-amIt is easy to look and “like” an image in your Instagram feed, but it is another to stop and truly think about what you are seeing. Arnold uses her Instagram to share with followers the fashion and dress themes that she explores in more detail with her MA students at London’s prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art, where she is the Senior Lecturer in History of Dress and Textiles.  In her course Documenting Fashion, “visual analysis is central to the way fashion and dress history is taught,” she says, and this perspective is central to each of her posts which pair captivating imagery with insightful commentary.

When she is not teaching, Arnold is writing and researching. She has contributed to numerous academic and journalistic projects, curated exhibitions and is currently working on a book Documenting Fashion: Modernity and Image in America, 1920-60. She recently took some time to answer some questions from the Art of Dress.

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-9-05-10-amWhy is the study of fashion history important to you? For so many reasons, it’s hard to summarise – I’ve spent my whole adult life studying, researching, writing, teaching in this field, and it’s an area that I have been fascinated by since childhood. I think fashion/dress is important in and of itself, as a means of self- and group- expression and a crucial part of so many types of histories, from autobiographies, to cultural, social and economic discussions of particular periods or themes. Studying fashion/dress history entails considering who we are and why we clothe ourselves as we do – which is an intense and personal consideration, as well as an academic pursuit. It’s about challenging the material and visual culture of our time and an important way to upend hierarchies that favour white, upper class, heteronormative values. The best fashion, and the best fashion history prompts people to rethink the world around them.

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-9-07-37-amIn your opinion, is fashion art? Can I answer with another question? Why does it need to be, what would that change? I think it’s interesting how persistent this question is. It’s often about traditional hierarchies that place art at the top and fashion at, or very near, the bottom of an imagined scale. In many ways, I would just like to see fashion and fashion history represented, thought about, written about, as important in and of themselves, rather than having to be called art in order to add ‘value.’ Fashion as a term incorporates everything from mass-produced throwaway styles to one off pieces. Yes, some examples can be seen as having equivalent qualities to fine art. And the same applies for fashion’s representation across various media. What I would say is fashion matters, and the last fifty years of scholarship proves that beyond doubt – as does the work of so many designers, illustrators, photographers etc…

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-9-16-10-amFavorite fashion designer, past and present: Madeleine Vionnet, for her constant experimentation, attention to the body and how it relates to fabric, and for her concern for her workers.

Grace Wales Bonner, for her attention to detail, for her subtle but powerful exploration of gender, sexuality and ethnicity through fashion and its representation, and for the elegance and intelligence of her designs.

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-9-32-36-amIf you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? It’s really impossible to choose just one book – I think that’s the beauty of the subject, it’s so diverse, it doesn’t fit into one text. If you can access the Berg Fashion Library then that is the very best way to start – it covers all periods and countries, and therefore allows you to focus in on your particular interests, as well as reading more widely.

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-9-15-22-amNow that you’ve read this interview, please take some time to explore the thousands of images on Arnold’s Instagram account.  I’ve provided some of my favorite posts below but I was hard-pressed to pick even this small handful, so thought-provoking and inspiring are all of her posts.


Arnold’s posts often relate directly to the themes and subjects explored by her students on their Documenting Fashion blog, found here.

More on Arnold and the program she teaches can be found at the links below:

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